Frank Remesch, the general manager of the recently refurbished, 14,000-seat CFG Bank Arena in Baltimore, Maryland, owned and operated by Oak View Group (parent company to Pollstar and VenuesNow), started at the facility in 1988 as an electrician and worked his way up to GM in 2004 when the building was known as Royal Farms Arena.
Over the years, the Baltimore native has been the venue’s most ardent advocate, which wasn’t always easy when you consider the arena, built in 1962, wasn’t constructed with modern concerts and live entertainment logistics in mind. Now that the $250 million full rebuild is complete, the venue welcomed Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band and the Eagles on opening weekend April 7-8 and Remesch is optimistic about the future of Charm City. He talked to VenuesNow about the vision for the arena and the potential impact on the city he calls home.
This interview is part of Pollstar / VenuesNow/s 2023 Venue Directory, which can be purchased here.
VenuesNow: How long has the city been talking about building a new arena?
Frank Remesch: This is my 35th year and they’ve been promising me a new building for 35 years. I’m not making that up. From day one we talked about it. And I remember with the old timers, riding around and them telling me, “We’re going to get a new arena” and thinking, “Why did I start working here? Am I crazy? I’m going to lose my job right away.” And 35 years later we finally get it. It’s surreal.
Now that it is up and officially opening, what are you looking forward to?
For me personally, I can’t wait to go back to doing what I do. Opening a building is tough and I hope I never have to do it again in my life. I love doing shows. If you talk to an athlete, practicing is important but you get sick of it and you want to get in the game.
How did hosting the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championship basketball games Feb. 21-25 help prepare the CFG Bank Arena team for the grand opening?
The CIAA was a soft opening and was probably, knock on wood, one of the best things that happened for us. It was very stressful but it was incredible because we proved we could do it.
The stress of hosting the games must have been easy compared to managing the very quick renovation.
This was a 16- to-18-month project that was done in 11 months because of a promise to the city, which again shows you what Oak View Group can do. Their buying power, their fortitude, I could tell you a bunch of corny stuff, but I’m being sincere in that this was incredible.
We are absolutely ready and I’m super excited, to say the least. And what a way to start with Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles right off the bat. But, what the hell, if you are going to jump in the deep end, it really doesn’t matter how deep it is, you are going to get wet, so let’s just do it.
Shiny And New: Some behind-the-scenes upgrades at CFG Arena include double the electrical power, insulation, and getting sprinklers and railings up to code.
Photo by MGC Media
Bruce Springsteen performed at the venue three times, 1973, 2009 and 2016. Before the renovation, you had a tradition of asking visiting artists to sign a baseball bat. Springsteen wrote, “Hey Frank: To glory days.” Are you getting him to sign the other side or start with a fresh bat?
I’ve got too much going on now to focus on that, although I am super proud of that bat. The bat is actually stored away. It’s going to take a while to get that unpacked. The offices are the last to get done, right?
How does it feel on a personal level seeing a building you have managed for decades stripped to the columns and come back as something completely different?
This is hard for me in a lot of ways because I loved my old building. I absolutely adored it. It was part of every fiber of my existence. I worked with friends there over the years, my father worked there, my mentors all worked there. So, it was kinda hard to pooh-pooh something you love.
Is it fair to say the former venue was overlooked as a tour stop, along with the market?
The market itself is incredible. It always has been incredible. We are diversified. We can pretty much sell anything, we always have been able to. And again, this is hard for me to do, because I love my building. I’m biased but I’ll say the old building was neutral. It didn’t help me with shows, but it didn’t hurt me, and I’m being very kind with that.
What were some of the obstacles to success in the old building?
The old building was tough for shows to move in and out. We had these acoustical cloud ceilings, which made it almost impossible to rig. We had a crazy proscenium stage that was outdated in the ‘60s when they built it. I had five different levels. My back-of-house was sometimes VIP/patron areas so monster trucks would be riding down the hallways where a day later there was a big VIP party.
Shining Stars: Frank Remesch (second right) gets with Earth Wind and Fire’s Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (center) and Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke (left) during a private opening gig April 6. Photo by MGC Media
What amenities were top of mind in the reconstruction?
The patrons will be so excited by the amenities. The acts will be super excited by the back-of-house. The production is incredible. Because of the ceiling, I had to give up a pre-rig day for almost every large show. If Bruce came on a Saturday, I lost a Friday because he would have to pre-rig on Saturday because it was difficult to hang my building. Well, Bruce’s people don’t want to do that. It ties up his equipment and I lose a date. I could have had the Eagles because I have to give it to Bruce, right? Speed is money. Time is money. With OVG making it faster, quicker, easier, cheaper, now I have the ability to stand toe-to-toe with some of my competitors, which I never could do before.
How has reducing the number of levels impacted the business model?
We added in more P-1 seats because we had three levels and now we have two. My old building held pretty much the same number of seats as the new building, which sounds counter intuitive but the difference is I probably had 2,000 seats that were bad sightlines.
My old building was a rectangle — we had a proscenium stage at one end and a corner at the other, so we had seats looking at each other. We rounded that. My third floor is my second level now and it is wide open. You can walk the concourse and watch the show. That was all concrete block walls going around.
What about the changes that people can’t see?
We have almost twice as much power for shows than we did before. Nobody is going to know that. Nobody is going to know that my building never had insulation and we insulated the entire building. No one is going to know that, unfortunately, my building barely had enough sprinklers and now it’s up to code. Once you touch that building, there is no Grandfather Clause and everything is perfect. We didn’t have railings going up and down the steps. There were ramps that weren’t up to ADA code. All of that had to be changed and the average person will never notice the tens of millions of dollars that was spent.
Charm City Arena: CFG Bank Arena had its grand opening April 7-8 with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band followed by the Eagles.
Photo by MGC Media
How will the upgrades impact your ability to sell shows?
Now, the building will help sell the shows.
What is the impact on the city of Baltimore?
People from Baltimore have a chip on our shoulder. Because of D.C. and Philly, we have always had a little bit of an attitude. I’m telling you, people still don’t believe the building is remodeled. I keep giving tours and tours and the more tours I give, the more people go, “I didn’t expect this. I really thought — I’m trying to be kind in how I say this — it was lipstick on a pig.” Everyone thought it was a little bit of paint, maybe change the lights, call it a day and, typical fashion, Baltimore gets left behind again. But, I’m telling you everything is new, from electric to plumbing and the fan experience is going to be absolutely incredible.
One of the areas fans gravitate to is concessions. How has that changed?
We have our average citizen level, and I’m telling you, you feel like you are in a suite. The food and beverage will be incredible. We have a diversified selection. Before, I don’t want to pick on it, but we were basically a glorified carnival. In the ‘60s they didn’t think about concessions. Funny thing is, they didn’t think about bathrooms either. My building was so strange. It looked like an outdoor fair. We had portables everywhere. Now we have beautiful bars and the lighting is incredible, the floors are beautiful. I’m proud, I don’t know how else to say it.
What has the reaction been like from the touring community?
What I did in the very beginning, once I started seeing things come to fruition, is I put a list together of things production-wise that hurt my building. And instead of going to agents and promoters, I went to the production guys and said, “Remember what a pain in the ass my rigging was? You’re going to dead hang now and it is going to take 20 minutes.” We had a bullet-point cheat sheet and once that got out, we went from bottom to the top.
And we did tours, it was dirty and noisy but we got boots on the ground so they could see what I was telling them. Once that happened, it spread like wildfire and I’m convinced it will catch on even more.
As a graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and serving on the Greater Baltimore Committee and Visit Baltimore, what does CFG Bank Arena mean to the community?
I’m humbled and proud. Friends of mine that own businesses, they are just waiting. They just needed a catalyst and the excitement level has been incredible.
It seems like the changes have attracted new partners including CFG Bank.
There was a negative connection with Baltimore and for a lot of reasons with the old building. “It’s a shit hole, I don’t want to put any money in this building.” Well, once they see Tim Leiweke take $250 million with Irving Azoff and put it into this city, now you have CFG Bank — nothing against our other naming rights partners — but this is absolutely different. This group comes to all our sales presentations to explain why they invested into this building. We’re not paying them to do that. That’s how much they believe in it.
OVG reimagined the model with CFG Bank Arena and built the venue with music, not sports, in mind. How does that change the dynamic?
Nothing against sports teams, I’m from Baltimore, I love sports, played sports, but Baltimore isn’t the best at supporting sports. It just is what it is. Baltimore is not going to get a professional basketball team or hockey team. We’re not getting the NBA or NHL. Let’s be real, we’re within one or two radius clauses and it’s not going to happen.
Baltimore is so diverse and strong when it comes to music, so why not build it for music? And I don’t lose 27 percent of my house because I’m a basketball or hockey house. All of my seats are in play. So, let’s build it for concerts. It’s what I’ve always wanted. Baltimore can sell concerts, right? Now, give me a building that’s built for that and uncuff me and let me go, let me compete, and watch what we can do.