Standing on the edge of the stage and gazing up at the Orion Amphitheater, you can almost see, hear and smell it. Screaming fans. Epic again. Memories of the best nights of your life.
It’s two days before the first-ever concert at Orion, a Huntsville hospital fundraiser featuring foxy country singer Jake Owen, and two weeks before The First Waltz, a weekend of star-studded concerts. natives of Alabama like Jason Isbell, Brittany Howard, Emmylou Harris, Waxahatchee and driving truckers.
Today, Orion is hosting a media presentation. This is the first time that the public has been able to visit the amphitheater. Tom Petty’s classic rocker ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ plays over PA speakers suspended atop the stage. It’s an appropriate song for a world-class venue that seemed unlikely to show up in a tertiary market like Huntsville, a northern Alabama town primarily known for aerospace engineering and Space Camp. But here we are. That happens.
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Orion is close to final form but is still a work in progress. Workers in helmets are everywhere in the room. Finishing details inside the cauldron lined with wooden benches in the amphitheater. In the two floors of open-air halls that surround the venue. In the stairwells.
There’s a scissor crane currently parked in the middle of the marquee dressing room, a space decorated with late ’60s furniture obtained from NASA. Stroll through the multiple bars with elevated libation offerings and streaky themes, and workers load beer cans and paint a counter electric blue.
Last night office staff from Venue Group, the company contracted to manage Orion, were in the pit area of the amphitheater and put number stickers on the folding seats. Today, Ben Lovett, co-founder of Venue Group and member of the Grammy-winning band Mumford and Sons, and Ryan Murphy, president of the Huntsville era of Venue Group, lead the media tour.
In “Level 200” following the upper level of the 8,000-seat venue, Lovett points out one of the design adjustments they made during construction. The edges of the far sides of the benches have been cut at an angle to the top row of the section. “To make sure there were optimal sight lines,” says Lovett in his warm British accent. “We just wanted to make sure no one had a bad seat in the house.” Often you will see sites go ahead and fill seats to the edges and sell those darkened seats for a cheaper price.
Additionally, Orion’s upper level was meant to be one story higher than it ended up being, a mid-build tweak that increases closeness for fans. In fact, you could be in the very last row of the bowl and not need one of those giant video screens on stage to watch the vocalist’s facial expressions or the guitarist’s hands.
The benches are made of Ipe, a rot and rot resistant hardwood. The seats look great and the rows have enough space between you won’t have to get up to let someone pass you by. The main structure of the amphitheater is off-white in color, combining with the colosseum-style design to give Orion an instantly classic look.
Orion is located in the MidCity development on the former grounds of Madison Square Mall, an ’80s hotspot in Huntsville. Currently, the area outside the amphitheater, planned for the city park, is more land than landscaping. But the concerts take place inside a hall, not in the trees, grass and shrubs outside. Orion’s basic operating chassis, as far as customer experience goes, will be in place for Owen’s Saturday concert and the First Waltz concert, Lovett said.
So when will the project be completely finished? “I kind of feel like this is going to be a living project,” Lovett says. “We’re going to get him to where we want him to be at some point over the summer. And then we’ll listen to feedback, and we’ll make edits and changes.
Murphy predicts that Orion will host at least 24 concert-level events in its first year. He thinks that number will jump to between 30 and 40 in 2023, which will be Orion’s second year of operation, but the first full year. The venue’s impressive first season bookings to date include Chris Stapleton, Dave Matthews Band, Black Keys, Kenny Chesney and Jack White. This Saturday Huntsville Hospital event with Jake Owen will raise funds for specialist pediatric services.
the The Orion Amphitheater is a city-owned facility, similar to the Von Braun Center. Huntsville receives profits from the operation of the amphitheater, including venue rentals to promoters and bands, bar revenue, sponsorship revenue, etc.
Huntsville Venue Group receives a flat fee of approximately five percent for its services. The Huntsville City Council authorized the project, with a budget of $40 million. By comparison, the nearby Madison minor league ballpark cost about $46 million. Construction of the amphitheater is funded by the City of Huntsville’s capital plan and a percentage of future lodging taxes. AL.com broke news of Huntsville Amphitheater ambitions in April 2018.
Architects of the Huntsville Amphitheater include Matheny Goldmon of Huntsville, whose fingerprints can be found on city landmarks including the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena and Mars Music Hall, and David M. Schwarz Architects Inc. of Washington. The contractor is Robins & Morton, whose past projects include Birmingham’s Regions Field baseball stadium and Auburn University basketball arena.
In February, Venue Group secured $50 million in new funding, from major players including Irving Azoff, a music mogul who managed superstars such as Eagles, Gwen Stefani and Harry Styles. Venue Group, aka “TVG Hospitality”, also has projects in London, New York, Austin, Texas, Nashville and Washington.
Of that $50 million, $15 million went to their Huntsville projects. These funds from Huntsville will be used in the construction of Apollo Park, the city park that will be built around the Orion Amphitheater, as well as on-site facilities to host community events, including farmers markets. Their stipends in Huntsville will also help launch Venue Group a new downtown club-sized venue Meridian Social Club this summer, in space 108 Cleveland Ave. NW which once housed AM Booth’s Lumberyard, near Furniture Factory Bar & Grill and Rocket Republic Brewing, just off Meridian Street.
Back on the Orion stage, Murphy reflects on the bowl’s egalitarian, “let the music do the talking” look. “We don’t look like sky-boxes or lounges or like pop-up tent bars. It’s just an ocean of fans. Murphy came to Huntsville from Florida’s St. Augustine Amphitheater, which he helped turn into a premier boutique. With Murphy at the helm, the St. Augustine Amphitheater has attracted a wide array of top performers, from Blondie to Slayer to Kendrick Lamar.
During his touring career with Mumford and Sons, Lovett performed at over a thousand different venues, including all the crown jewels of Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Greek Theater. . Lovett says Orion’s ambition and reach make it “a really big deal, not just for Huntsville, it’s a really big deal in America.”