Greater Houston’s entertainment compass is about to get spun hard towards the southwest. The Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land, officially opening next month, is a state-of-the-art, flexible-capacity concert hall targeting the sector of artists whose draw is too big for larger theaters and yet too small for the arena/amphitheater circuit. It’s a hole that many local music fans have been hoping to see filled for years.
“The southwest quadrant of the Houston marketplace is somewhat underserved with entertainment venues,” says the Smart Center’s General Manager, Randy Bloom. “But when we look at where our ticket sales are coming from already, the types of acts we’re bringing, we’re not bringing local community entertainment. It’s world-renowned artists, so we expect to get customers from all over the Houston marketplace and beyond.”
The Smart Centre will open in a much different community than the relatively sleepy suburban town it was even a decade or two ago. About two weeks ago, according to the Houston Chronicle, the Sugar Land City Council approved the annexation of two nearby unincorporated communities totaling approximately 30,000 residents, which when completed next December will bring the population of Fort Bend County’s biggest city to about 120,000. The Texas Department of State Health Services estimates the county’s population (which also includes Richmond, Rosenberg, Stafford, Fulshear, and parts of Katy and Pearland) will reach nearly 900,000 people by 2020.
This teeming and diverse area — ethnically, Fort Bend is split almost evenly between white, black, Hispanic, and "other" (mostly Asian), and voted for Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential election — offers a favorable combination of jobs, schools, shopping, reasonably affordable housing, and a cost of living index under the national average, according to city-data.com. But what it lacks is any kind of meaningful performing-arts center, though Sugar Land is certainly not alone. With the exception of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, NRG Stadium and perhaps Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House, the area’s major performance venues are concentrated in Downtown Houston. But all that will change a few weeks from now.
Thus far the Smart Centre has booked almost 20 dates through Celtic Woman on May 20; for the past few weeks, new shows have been announced at a rate of two or three per week. Its opening weeks are much more crowded, starting with two sets by Jerry Seinfeld on January 14 and Don Henley the next night. Then, in quick succession, come Reba, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds (just announced Wednesday) and Dancing With the Stars Live!; Sting, Billy Crystal, the Lumineers, Tony Bennett, Steve Martin & Martin Short and Bastille are all a little further down the line. Other shows like, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth or a the musical adaptation of Dirty Dancing, will take advantage of the venue’s flexible design that allows part of the main hall to be portioned off to create a venue about half the size of the Centre’s maximum capacity of just over 6,000 seats.
“There’s an expression that’s been repeated to me several times, that every venue is ‘a size too,’ which is either too big or too small for whatever band comes into the venue, or every show that comes into the venue,” Bloom says. An artist like Seinfeld or Henley, he notes, “would blow the walls off a smaller theater, but they would be lost to some extent in an impersonal arena or stadium. So it’s a perfect size from that standpoint.”
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The Smart Centre’s origins lie in Sugar Land officials’ desire to create some destination venues for their burgeoning city, places residents could be entertained (and spend their money) closer to home. The same plan resulted in the construction of Constellation Field, home of the Sugar Land Skeeters minor-league baseball team; formal plans for a possible third project, which Bloom says could be a conference center, have not been announced. According to the Houston Business Journal, the Smart Center cost an estimated $84 million and was funded in part by a private-equity stake from its operator, Ace SL LLC (a subsidiary of Houston’s Ace Theatrical Group); municipal sales and hotel-occupancy taxes; and rents paid by Ace. Another Houston-based company, Smart Financial Credit Union, is chipping in another 6.7 million over five years for the naming rights. Essentially, the venue is designed to pay for itself without using any general taxpayer money.
“It really is a great example of what government can do when it does things well, and every community has its issues, but when government can get together and create a vision like this and carry it through, it’s really remarkable,” says Bloom.
The Smart Centre’s success could mean much more than a cultural boon for Sugar Land, though. Citing a 2012 feasibility study, the city’s mayor, James Thompson, told the HBJ that the venue will add about $26 million per year to the local economy, and could draw as many as 300,000 people annually after five years. (Year One could see as many as 250,000 visitors, he noted.) Although the Centre’s opening months already offer everything from older rock and country artists to Broadway-style shows, comedy legends and modern-rock favorites, Bloom says he hopes to bring in programming that more completely reflects the surrounding community, whatever that may be. He thinks that will come in time as the Smart Centre continues to establish itself.
“I don’t think the building is particularly suited for one demographic or another,” he says. “We’re working with Latin promoters and South Asian promoters and urban promoters in terms of demographics, really spreading the audience to host a little bit of everything, because that’s what Houston is, and in particular that’s what Fort Bend County is,” he says. “The diversity here is phenomenal.”