‘Why Not Huntsville?’ Ben Lovett’s Venue Group Plants Flag For 8,000-Seat Alabama Amphitheatre Project

David M. Schwarz Architects
– Huntsville
The new amphitheater, seen in a rendering, is scheduled to open in April 2022.

Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett has seen a lot of U.S. cities and towns and the spaces in between, and what he sees in Huntsville, Ala., is a perfect spot for a new 8,000-seat amphitheater, the first for the city and his company Venue Group.

Ground has been broken on the David M. Schwarz-designed, city-owned shed, which is targeted for an April 2022 opening. Robins & Morton is the construction contractor. The amphitheater will be managed by Huntsville Venue Group under the leadership of President Ryan Murphy, former general manager of the St. Augustine (Florida) Amphitheatre.
The Huntsville Venue Group partnership also includes industry veterans Mike Luba, Don Sullivan, Jeff Kicklighter and Al Santos.
One might ask, why Huntsville?
“I think the better question is, ‘Why not Huntsville,’ Lovett says. “It’s like from touring with my band over the years, I think we sometimes get ourselves into a little bit of a close-minded attitude when it comes to live venues where we just assume that the best and the greatest need to live in the cities with the largest populations, and actually, sometimes making things like this happen, the aspirational and kind of building the dream which we’ve managed to do here with the city of Huntsville, would be very difficult to pull off in some of the more established markets.”
That there’s more to the U.S. than what you will find on the coasts or in the major population centers is not lost on Lovett, but Hunstville is hardly a sleepy backwater. Situated between Nashville to the north and Atlanta to the south, the city is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (hence the nickname “Rocket City”), what’s essentially the FBI’s second headquarters that’s under construction at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal just outside the city, a new rocket engine production facility for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, an expanding Facebook data center and a Mazda Toyota Manufacturing facility that’s due to open this year.
The U.K.-based company Sound Diplomacy, which researches ways that cities can use music, arts and cultural offerings to bring economic and social growth, did a music audit in Huntsville, whose leaders were looking at ways to elevate what’s available to residents in a city with strong per capita income and plenty of outdoor recreation options, Murphy said.
“It’s emerging in a way that’s unprecedented,” Murphy said of the city. “The financial stability of the city has been growing. What has happened is, as you have … all these different companies looking to move to Huntsville, they’re also looking to recruit and bring in younger engineers and their families. So, what the city saw was, maybe as all these younger engineers are coming here and all these people are coming and getting paid decent wages and Huntsville is really checking all these boxes, the one box they aren’t checking is the quality-of-life aspect holistically. Culturally it’s been a little sleepier than it could have been.” Instead of having people work locally but seek entertainment offerings in cities like Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham, city leaders envision the amphitheater helping to make Huntsville a place that major acts include on their routes.
“I just think it’s forward thinking,” Murphy said.
The Huntsville City Council in October authorized the city’s Public Building Authority to move into the classical-style project’s building phase. The construction budget is estimated at $40 million, to be funded by the city. The shed is being constructed in a new city park and is envisioned to have year-round access as it hosts nonconcert events like farmers markets, arts festivals, meetings and other large- and small-scale gatherings.
Lovett says he wants the project to have food and beverage offerings that go beyond typical venue fare by bringing in regional chefs and local vendors in a food village-type concept.
The venue will open to any promoter and will host a variety of musical offerings, Lovett said.
“Our model is very much an open room model,” he said. “We will encourage third-party artists and promoters to come into the room and we’re not going to promote the shows. So that relationship, between how much the show costs and the experience that they are getting as a fan and artist, we are going to completely leave that alone.
“The artist and their promoter will come and rent the room and we’ll provide a great facility, but we are not going to be a part of the economics of the show itself. I think it’s really important to get out of the way of that. I think it’s all just got very intermingled, the revenue streams have got very confused over the last 20 years. We’re hoping to make that a little bit more transparent and detangled.”