Wolf Creek Amphitheater may give economic boost to South Fulton

Wolf Creek Amphitheater has gone from losing money to making it, and has become a community fixture. Now, Fulton County wants to see if there’s interest from operators who might see the potential in the venue. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Wolf Creek Amphitheater has gone from losing money to making it, and has become a community fixture. Now, Fulton County wants to see if there’s interest from operators who might see the potential in the venue. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A South Fulton amphitheater that lost money when it opened in 2011 is now being considered a potential economic engine for the region.

Wolf Creek Amphitheater couldn't sell tickets and had trouble booking shows the year after it opened. In the intervening years, it has found its niche with a mix of R&B and jazz performances. The amphitheater has been profitable since 2013. Last year, it brought in $450,000 to the county.

The improvements have led the county to think big: could Wolf Creek Amphitheater be a catalyst for economic development in the area? The county has floated a contract to management companies that would get it out of the business of running the venue. By handing control over to a private company, Fulton leaders hope to bring in more shows with bigger names — and bring in more money.

“We hope to have good competition for this,” County Manager Dick Anderson said. “What is the future? We hope it can be a catalyst for something bigger.”

Some residents wish the venue wouldn’t change.

The proposal, though, is the first step in an approach that could eventually lead to the creation of a hub that includes a performing arts center, a conference center and a mixed-use development on some of the 435 acres adjacent to the amphitheater. There is already a library, a firing range, a police training center and a recycling center and transfer station on the land.

Those projects, though, depend on whether anyone is interested in managing the amphitheater itself. Adding more shows and increasing usage of the venue itself would help spur additional development — eventually.

For now, the county has offered a proposal that asks for bids to manage the venue, including its concessions, web site and parking. It also includes sponsorships, including for a skybox at the facility and the eventual naming rights of Wolf Creek. Since it opened, no sponsorships have been sold.

Bids are due Nov. 1 and commissioners are scheduled to make a decision about the amphitheater’s future in December.

The new operator would be expected to have at least 20 shows a year beginning in the spring and ending in fall. The county wants it to have an alcohol license for its eight concession stands. The county may put money into improvements — including additional seats — if Wolf Creek is bringing in enough money to warrant it.

The amphitheater, which seats about 5,300 — most on the lawn — is about 10 miles west of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It’s similar in size to Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Buckhead, which is about 10 miles north of downtown Atlanta. Chastain is managed by Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the world, and attracts a diverse range of acts, such as Willie Nelson, Josh Groban and Jill Scott. Live Nation also manages Lakewood Amphitheatre, the Tabernacle and Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Alpharetta, while Infinite Energy Center in Duluth is managed by the private company Sugarloaf Gwinnett Center, under the direction of the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau Board on behalf of Gwinnett County.

Wolf Creek would offer a potential operator a medium-size venue in an area of Atlanta that is currently underserved for mid-range acts. Most of the lineup at Wolf Creek consists of nostalgia R&B/soul acts; El DeBarge, Doug. E. Fresh, Keith Sweat and Dru Hill performed at the venue this summer.

Lakewood Amphitheatre, about 12 miles east, accommodates nearly 20,000 patrons and typically books larger draws such as Luke Bryan and 5 Seconds of Summer.

Some residents, though, don’t want Wolf Creek, built on the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics shooting range, to be a regional destination.

Parking is free and picnicking is allowed on the lawn. South Fulton residents who attended a commission meeting holding signs that read "Wolf Creek is World Class" and "No Outsourcing Wolf Creek" don't want to see the character of the venue change.

If a private operator takes over, Stanford Lightfoot said he is concerned that it will eliminate free parking and stop allowing patrons to bring in their own food and drinks. Lightfoot, a comedian who has performed at Wolf Creek at MC Lightfoot, worries that the R&B performers will be replaced by acts that could be seen at the Fox Theatre or Lakewood Amphitheatre.

“That’s not what they want to see,” Lightfoot said of residents. “It’s working fine.”

But Lightfoot’s version of success — an enjoyable concert experience — isn’t enough for the county. Its request for bids encourages people to be “innovative and creative” about how it will generate revenue, and share it with the county. It suggests parking fees and rental fees in addition to ticket and concession sales.

Kim Etheredge, who lives in the area, said she fears new control will make the venue unaffordable. No one wanted to run it when it was just starting out, she said. But now that it is successful for the county, there are those who want to make more off it.

“Once it gets larger, someone takes notice,” she said.

In 2012, commissioners considered seeking private management for the amphitheater, which cost $6.1 million to build. At that time, there were no takers.

“Let’s see how far this will go,” Anderson said. “It seems like people see South Fulton Parkway as something with huge potential. … What we don’t want to see is it turn into just warehouses.”