KISS. Elton John. Willie Nelson. Flo Rida.
There was a time when music lovers across Minnesota would need to take a pilgrimage to places like Minneapolis or even Chicago if they wanted to see big names like these in concert—but not anymore.
Instead, these titans of the music industry are stopping in none other than Mankato. The college town may have only 50,000 people, but it’s also got the Verizon Wireless Center (also called the Civic Center)—an entertainment powerhouse that generates more than $40 million annually in economic impact for the region.
That wasn’t always the case, though, according to Civic Center Executive Director Burt Lyman. In fact, 20 years ago, the center was only doing about 30 percent of its current entertainment offerings.
“The promoters and agents are coming to us [now], [but] 10 years ago, we’d be begging for just about anything we could get,” Lyman said. “Now we’re to the point that we’re actually having to traffic and space out shows because Mankato can only take so much.”
Funny enough, a lot of that interest is thanks to Elton John, who performed to a sold-out arena in 2012.
“Everything came together with Elton John,” Lyman explained. “He wanted to play some small markets, and the show did really well and had a significantly high gross, something that agents and promoters didn’t think that Mankato could do. That enlightened people.”
Something else that boosted Mankato’s marketability was the construction of the Vetter Stone Amphitheater, which opened in 2010. The outdoor venue, located in Mankato’s Riverfront Park, has hosted everyone from Alice Cooper to Trampled by Turtles, and it was ranked No. 4 on a list of top 10 outdoor venues in Minnesota by the Star Tribune in 2013.
That’s not even mentioning Ribfest, which takes place every August and attracts more than 20,000 people annually, making it the city’s biggest yearly event. This year, Pat Benatar was the headlining act, and tickets only cost $10 each.
“We want to keep the ticket price low, and that puts us in the ballpark of certain kinds of acts,” explained Eric Jones, marketing manager for the Verizon Center. “We’re looking for what would be the biggest appeal to the most people. It’s about getting a mass number of people out to enjoy the music, the ribs, everything like that.”
While most people would agree that paying $10 to see Pat Benatar is a steal, Lyman pointed out the real success is showing people how affordable and enjoyable concerts in Mankato can be, even if it means not jacking up prices as high as possible.
“We get a lot of comments like, ‘$10 to see Pat Benatar?’” Lyman added. “That’s been a smart move. [And] with the big shows, they draw from the metro. People are coming down from the metro and going, ‘Holy cow, beer’s only $5.50 and parking’s five bucks,’ and they get a taste of that. It’s much easier to go to a show down here than it is up there.”
Another reason for Mankato’s musical success is the city’s success overall, Lyman said.
“Mankato’s doing very well, economically,” he pointed out. “You can see all the new businesses opening, new structures being built, the population growing to 50,000. We’re heading in a positive direction, and it’s undeniable. If the town was in a tailspin, we wouldn’t have this success [in attracting high-profile names].”
Thanks in part to that economic success, Mankato was able to afford a $30 million expansion to the Civic Center, which was finished in 2016. The expansion included new locker rooms (pretty important, since the Civic Center hosts all of MSU-Mankato’s hockey games), expanding the center’s concession stands, and—most important of all—adding a grand hall that can seat 2,100-3,000. With this addition, the Civic Center is able to host simultaneous events in three different venues (the center’s 7,500-seat stadium, the Grand Hall and the Vetter Stone Amphitheater), which means an explosion of entertainment acts within the past few months. According to Lyman, there’s hardly a day when one part of the Civic Center isn’t in use, and some things, like conventions, can be planned years in advance.
“The Grand Hall has far exceeded our expectations in terms in usage,” Lyman said. “The biggest problem is trying to figure out where to put all the activity that wants to come. We hate to turn down business, but if you’re booked, you’re booked.”
So what’s popular in Mankato these days? Country music and classic rock, according to both Lyman and Jones. Shows like KISS and Kansas are consistently sold out. Conversely, alternative music isn’t so popular, and “pop” music a la Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber isn’t a mainstay of the area, either. However, when it comes to these “Top 20” types of musicians, Jones says, the interest isn’t lacking—it’s just too difficult to compete with the Twin Cities.
On the other hand, Mankato’s proximity to the cities can also be a good thing, according to Jered Johnson, president and CEO of Pepper Entertainment, Inc. The Civic Center works with Pepper Entertainment to find musical acts, and Johnson said Mankato’s location can make it easier for him to pitch it as a potential concert site since it’s close to other good sites such as the Twin Cities, Des Moines and Sioux Falls. That way, artists can line up several shows in a row instead of traveling out to just one location.
“You’ve got to offer them more than one market,” Johnson said, adding that Mankato has several good selling points. “You’ve got the university there, which is a huge plus. The Civic Center expansion and Vetter Stone have been great. Plus, [the folks at the Civic Center] are easy to work with. They’ve got good staff and are easy to work with and stay in constant contact with promoters.”
Besides the Twin Cities, other competition comes in the form of casinos and, in the summertime, places such as the Minnesota State Fair and area music festivals.
“We can’t get a country show to play Mankato in the summer time to save our lives, and a lot of that has to do with festivals and the State Fair,” Jones said.
He explained that major venues often have “radius clauses” that prohibit acts from playing within a certain radius for a certain length of time. For example, if an act performs at a certain festival, it may not be legally allowed to perform within 200 miles of that location for 30 days before the fair and 30 days after.
Despite the competition, it looks like Mankato is still doing pretty well for itself. Its lineup this year included Styx, Boys II Men and Flo Rida, and that’s not going into the conventions, fashion shows, hockey games… and WWE Live. It just goes to show that there truly is something for everyone in Mankato.
Lyman said the next thing on the Civic Center’s to-do list is an update for the Vetter Stone Amphitheater, including improvements to the outdoor seating situation and perhaps working on some concession stands. Currently, all the concessions that are sold at outdoor events comes from the Civic Center, and it often takes two days just to transfer all the food and beverages out to the site. If everything could be stored onsite, Lyman said, it would be much more efficient.
However, the most important renovation revolves around seating—which can become a bit tight at especially popular events.
“You can get away with packing people in at festivals [like Ribfest],” Lyman said, “but if pay for a ticket, you have to be able to see. That limits it to about 2,200 people. We’re going to try to remedy that this fall.”
The importance of teamwork
Mankato may be smaller than many other entertainment venues, but the Verizon Wireless Center’s team is just as professional as the big players. Employees work through the night sometimes to ensure everything is ready for a show, and there have been times when a concert is perfectly finished up before a convention the next day with no leftover evidence.
“Our team is very well trained,” Lyman said. “That creates a good experience for the show itself. Lots of times when an act’s going into a small market like ours, they get nervous because they think we don’t know how to get the show in and out in a timely fashion. But that’s not the case. We’ve got a great reputation. The people who work here make sure they do everything they have to do to make sure the show goes on.”
By Grace Webb