GO FRIARS: Amica Mutual Pavilion is home to Providence College men’s basketball, including mascot Huxley pictured during a game on Jan. 7. (Getty Images)
On Friday, the stalwart arena of note in Providence, Rhode Island, will put an exclamation point on its 50 years in business with a concert by Pitbull that follows a luncheon dedication to longtime local concert promoter Frank J. Russo.
Amica Mutual Pavilion, which opened as Providence Civic Center in 1973 in the city’s downtown, has been celebrating the milestone throughout the year, with a “50 random acts of kindness” campaign giving back to the community with food drives, animal shelter drives, Valentine’s Day gifts to a local cancer clinic as well as food and beverage offerings, a Spotify playlist and other events.
The celebration peaks on Friday, with a lunchtime gala honoring Russo and, that night, a ticketed concert with Pitbull, which Russo says he was pleased to see was selling very well.
The venue looks back at a rich history while continuing to serve its community and clients with a personal touch. The arena is credited with bringing people to downtown Providence and developing a strong culture of live music.
“There were no other facilities in New England with the exception of the old Boston Garden, really, so when it opened in ‘73, it was literally the only luxury arena that had, you know, air conditioning,” says ASM’s Larry Lepore, general manager of the arena. “Before the building opened in the city of Providence, there were three hotels, one of them was boarded up and closed. Today, there’s probably 11 hotels. So in that period of 50 years, it was the catalyst that really started to draw people to entertainment and create a great cultural scene.”
“It was a beautiful, first-class venue,” added Russo, living in Florida and mostly retired from concert promotion since selling his business in the ‘90s. He rattles off memorable concerts produced at the arena at will, noting how, at the time, being in Providence was attractive to performers looking to enjoy the city.
The arena, home to Providence College men’s basketball team since 1973 and AHL Providence Bruins since 1992, would host 40 to 60 shows annually well into the ‘80s.
“Billy Joel played three shows there in 1990, and instead of going to Foxborough for three days, he wanted to perform at night and then go to (nearby) Block Island every day to go fishing,” said Russo. “There was always multiple shows — three Barry Manilows, three Grateful Deads, always multiple dates for artists in Providence.”
Russo notes the loyalty of touring bands to local promoters in those days, considering himself very fortunate to work closely with artists like Aerosmith, Frank Zappa, Frank Sinatra and KISS in particular as regular tour stops at the arena.
Loyalty remains at Amica Mutual Pavilion, with artists returning to the venue in 2022 including James Taylor and Barry Manilow, while New Edition played in late April of this year after multiple stops in the ‘80s.
“Feld Entertainment’s partnership with Amica Mutual Pavilion began in 1979,” Jim Moseley, regional vice president for Feld Entertainment, shared with VenuesNow via email. “Since then, they have helped usher in 4,500,000 fans to our world-class productions, including Disney On Ice, Monster Jam, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Marvel Universe Live, and Jurassic World Live Tour. This season alone, the AMP hosted over 95,000 of our fans. This is a clear testament to the enduring popularity of our productions in Providence, but what also cannot be understated is the role the arena facilities and staff play. Because of the AMP, Providence has become part of the backbone of Feld Entertainment’s tours in the Northeast.”
“The Providence Civic Center has played host to some of the most memorable WWE events over the past few decades,” added John Porco, WWE Live Events executive vice president. “We look forward to continuing this tradition with our amazing partners at the Amica Mutual Pavilion as well as with our great fans in Providence and across all of Rhode Island.”
In recent years, the arena has seen competition arise with casinos and amphitheaters giving fans and touring productions more options as the live entertainment experience evolves and specializes. Operated by ASM Global, Amica Mutual Pavilion was sold from the city to the state of Rhode Island in 2007.
“When the state bought the building, they did an $85 million renovation,” Lepore said. “I’m grateful and lucky that the state understands the necessity to constantly invest capital into the building. We normally spend somewhere between $5 million and $10 million a year on projects that the state agrees to fund for us.”
Lepore says his team is in the process of spending about $20 million this year on a new roof and to renovate the seating bowl to allow for more VIP space on the floor for concerts, with club dining and restaurants.
“The fact that you get 50 years out of anything, just goes to show the kind of construction that went on here,” he said. The arena has 20 suites, which he says is a good number for the venue and market. Following a lull in the last 15 to 20 years, those suites are now all sold, Lepore says.
The roof is about the only original structural component remaining at the venue and is being replaced by the original contractor, a local firm called Dimeo Construction. Lepore says better insulation will help with operating costs, and eliminate worry about leaks or regular maintenance. Another major project is adding more telescopic seating to add closer, courtside seats for basketball and concerts.
“We’re constantly reinventing ourselves because we have to stay relevant,” he said. “Now we’re in a market that has eight or nine buildings with 8,000 seats within a two-hour drive, three casinos within an hour drive. So, we have to be creative and we have to be aggressive.” The arena will be closed this summer from June into August during roof construction and other renovations.
Added excitement comes from new Friars head coach Kim English. He spent two years as head coach at George Mason University. The team announced it has sold out all home games for the 2023-2024 men’s basketball season, with assistant athletic director Kevin Connolly telling local media, “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Looking to the next 50 years, the goal is to continue being aggressive to secure show dates, offering new amenities that fans want and getting the word out to the industry that Providence remains a strong market.
“I think you’re going to see another 25 years out of this building,” said Lepore, noting the strength of college basketball and AHL for steady ancillary business. “But I think we have to be more flexible in what we offer our patrons. We’ve had great success but my challenge now is to educate promoters and stay on top of it.” He says competing with the upgraded TD Garden for shows is a fact of life.
“A promoter will say, ‘I can play Boston, it’s 45 minutes away,’” Lepore says. “Yeah, you can, and you’re going to have success in Boston, but you’re also going to miss another market. Maybe that’s the first leg, but you should come back on your second leg. It’s about word of mouth, getting in front of these people and understanding that we can be successful.”