Rumors of the existence of a new amphitheater in Bridgeport turn out to be true.
“This is the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” developer and principal Howard Saffan grinned during a recent visit by the Business Journal. “I was president of the (Bridgeport) Sound Tigers, where I was involved with the Islanders. I was president of Webster Arena (next door to the amphitheater). Nothing like this.”
What had been known as the Harbor Yard Amphitheater became on Feb. 23 the Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater.
The event announcing that news was a demonstration of just how much the venue could mean to the community. Attendees included not only Saffan and Live Nation President Jim Koplik, whose concert promotion firm is part of the joint venture that owns the site, but also HHC CEO Jeff Flaks, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, and even Rev. Carl McCluster, the senior pastor of Bridgeport’s Shiloh Baptist Church.
It would be understandable if Saffan was feeling a hockey-like check to the head, given his background and the fact that the 5,700-seat open-air venue was originally scheduled to open in the spring of 2019. That was then pushed to the summer. Then it was going to open in 2020.
And then Covid-19 arrived.
Saffan — who described his travails to the Business Journal in January 2020 as “a combination of Murphy’s Law and the weather” — said the pandemic has actually been something of a blessing in disguise as it has allowed his construction team to more carefully go about getting the facility into shape.
“We made some changes in the design, like pulling the stage out another 15 feet for better sightlines,” he said.
The extra time also allowed for careful adherence to pandemic protocols, including social distancing. “The subcontractors came in as a group,” Saffan said. “That way electricians weren’t working next to plumbers. We scheduled all the subcontractors in different areas. Outside was less of an issue, but we took the same approach.
“And we did not have one incident, which isn’t always the case with construction,” he added.
The exterior of the facility at 500 Broad St. now includes the fabled “Guitar Man,” the nearly 40-foot-tall metal sculpture that hung on the façade of New Haven Coliseum from 1972 until that venue’s implosion in 2007. It was acquired by Got Attitude Vodka principal Leo Reizfeld, who heard a caller to the “Chaz & A.J.” radio show on WFOX and WPLR suggest that the Bridgeport amphitheater should be Guitar Man’s next stop.
As a result, ABC Sign of Bridgeport is restoring Guitar Man, including adding LED lights.
“He was in terrible condition,” Saffan said of Guitar Man, “but now he lives again. It’s great to add a little bit of history like that.”
The facility will also soon have in place a tensile roof that will cover 92% of its seats, he said. The fabric is similar to that used at Denver Airport. All told, there were over 1 million pounds of steel involved in constructing its stage.
Concerts in June (Covid willing)
And, by hook or by crook, Saffan is determined that the amphitheater will finally open its doors May 15, with 10 college and university graduations already booked. In addition, concert promoter Live Nation — which with the city of Bridgeport is a partner in the venue, along with Saffan — has booked 15 concerts for the spring and summer, hopefully beginning in June, though Saffan would not say which ones.
Also on the docket are college fairs, WWE events, Masses in June and November, and various other nonconcert events. All are subject to the state’s Covid-19 protocols. Currently performing arts venues can allow 50% capacity as long as 6 feet of distance is maintained between parties.
“There are still a lot of acts that don’t want to go on the road this year,” Saffan noted, saying such decisions were made both by concerns about the acts’ and the public’s safety, as well as the uncertainty about recouping the costs associated with going on tour.
Figuring all that out is a specialty of Live Nation and Koplik. “If anyone can make sense of the puzzle, it’s Jimmy,” Saffan said. “Every date has a backup date.” Ultimately the amphitheater will host 25 to 35 concerts a summer, he said.
As for the cost of putting the amphitheater together, Saffan simply smiled when asked if the widely reported original estimate of $15 million was still accurate.
“We’re way past that,” he said, declining to give an actual figure. “This has become a labor of love.”
Last year, Saffan sought — and received — an additional $4.5 million from Bridgeport to make up for the unexpected expenses that have occurred since its July 2018 groundbreaking. That brought the city’s total investment to $12 million, a sum that many residents vociferously opposed.
Asked if he would request any further funds from the city, Saffan said no.
“The city has been wonderful to work with,” he said. “Mayor Ganim has been very supportive, and Tom Gill (director of the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development) has been the Robin to my Batman.”
Under the terms of the joint venture agreement, which runs for 40 years, Bridgeport will receive per year a minimum rent of $150,000 and $3 of each ticket sold. Saffan said that the clock had yet to start on those terms, given the contract’s force majeure clause that was invoked with the pandemic.
For all the tribulations, Saffan remains confident that the amphitheater will become a beacon for events goers throughout Connecticut, New York and even Massachusetts, and stands by his original estimate that its economic impact on Bridgeport will be more than $50 million per year, once it is up and fully running.
“We’re going to make a huge difference for music lovers throughout the region,” he said. “There’s nothing else like this. You’ve got places that seat 14,000, or something like the Xfinity (in Hartford) that has 30,000 seats.”
With the importance of routing to touring acts, the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion in Boston, which holds a little over 5,000 people, will help the Bridgeport venue, Saffan said, with acts able to play both facilities before heading into like-sized buildings in New York.
“It’s taken us a long time to get here,” he said. “But we’re more than ready to open.”