ORION’S BELT: Orion Amphitheater opened in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2022, this year hosting artists including Neil Young. Greta Van Fleet, Lainey Wilson, Slash’s S.E.R.P.E.N.T. Festival, Styx & Foreigner and more. (Courtesy Venue)

Alabama shed helps set sustainability standard

In a city known for its contributions to the U.S. space program, The Orion Amphitheater in Huntsville, Alabama, is reaching for the stars when it comes to protecting the environment on Earth.

Designed by Ben Lovett, Mike Luba, Don Sullivan, Ryan Murphy and with the lead architect David M. Schwartz, the venue opened May 13, 2022, and made an early commitment to sustainability due in part to Lovett’s touring experience.

When the venue opened, Lovett said he was “shocked” at the waste generated by events. “As an artist we tried to implement things, but there is only so much you can do if you don’t have the keys to the building: We have the keys and can set things up in a certain way to reduce waste,” he said.

Classic in design, the Orion is setting a modern standard for sustainability at mid-sized outdoor venues.

SELF EXPLANATORY: Waste-reduction efforts include clear signage on not only receptacles but the utensil and vessel itself. (Courtesy venue)

The 8,000-capacity, $40 million amphitheater adjoins a new park and is nestled near Huntsville’s emerging MidCity district on the site of a former regional mall. The mixed-use area is focused on entertainment, retail and dining with 1,865 residential units and 925 hotel rooms, crafting an available audience steps from the gate.

Lovett and the team chose the location based on extensive research. The market is a thriving creative ecosystem with a burgeoning metro population in excess of 492,000, but it lacked adequate live entertainment options. The city owns the venue and tvg hospitality, Lovett’s multinational music venues enterprise, has an agreement to operate the Orion for 25 years, according to Murphy, managing director of the Orion.
“(Sustainability) is an ingrained tenant,” said Murphy, who initiated sustainability practices as GM of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre before joining the Orion.

The Orion is a good neighbor and a leader in sustainability for North Alabama and its rich musical legacy. Activations include a reusable cup program, sourcing locally, composting, water reclamation, measuring and monitoring their carbon footprint, community education initiatives and an onsite microfarm for all organic corn, watermelon, tomatoes, squash for artist catering and a variety of herbs for the front of house craft cocktail menu.

“For Ben and I, here we are staring at hundreds of thousands of people throughout the year and we are basically creating an environment for them to have a great time, throwing big parties,” Murphy explained. “The thing that is the most critical is not only the experience, the safety and wellbeing of the guests, but it’s just being a good steward to the community and the environment. Ben saw that on the road and I experienced that in St. Augustine.”

Murphy launched a reusable cup program in Florida that took their average waste output from eight full dumpsters down to half a load. There is a similar program at the Orion, where tvg hospitality also handles food service. Snack items are in bulk and served in sustainable containers to eliminate bags. Water is available in aluminum cans or free water stations including backstage where canteens are made available to crews.
“When people are hydrated and healthy and safe, they are actually going to drink more alcohol,” Murphy said. “So it would behoove you to give water away for free.”

MIXED UP: The 8,000-capacity amphitheater includes park-like space and is located near the MidCity mixed-used district that includes dining, retail and residential units. (Courtesy venue)

The venue has a closed system for waste, with compost material used in the garden beds in the Artist Garden that are harvested for use by chef Josh Quick of Odette, which is in Florence, Alabama. The team is replanting trees and using natural vegetation in their green space. The carbon footprint is closely monitored and the Orion team will supplement their use by volunteering in the community including the River Keeper Clean Up program. The venue worked with the city to provide a downtown shuttle to the venue for events to help reduce carbon emissions.

Eliminating single-use plastic containers is key, according to Murphy. And although they don’t do this at the Orion, he suggested that venue operators interested in reusable cups monetize the process with partner branding on cups and drop off containers.

“It’s real estate,” offered Murphy. “Instead of your name on the side of the building, we’ll put it on every cup. That’s a lot of people with your name in their hands.”

Murphy said these kinds of efforts can save money for venues and attract environmentally minded artists and shows. “I’ll tell you, for sure, Neil Young is coming here because of the things we are doing,” he said.

The Orion has a conservation mindset that meshes with a desire to showcase the unique history of North Alabama: including FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios, made famous by Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Wilson Pickett among others; and Huntsville, which is known as Rocket City due to its ties to NASA.

“It’s 1960s Muscle Shoals, Aretha Franklin is down the road recording while some guys are engineering how to put a man on the moon,” Murphy said. “All of this happening around the same time period here in North Alabama.”

Before the Orion opened, Murphy called the local space office to ask if there was any memorabilia from the program the Orion could use backstage and in artist dressing rooms. Turns out they were going to demolish a ‘60s era building the next day that had a ton of surplus furniture. They told Murphy, “You can get trucks and load up.” That’s how the iconic and kitschy backstage décor — many pieces still have affixed NASA barcodes — from lamps to a rolling bar cart was saved from the landfill.

Programming at the Orion includes roughly 40 concerts, 120 community and civic events and 75 private events each year with seasonal markets, food and film festivals, regional theater productions, environmental symposiums and family events.

HYDRATION: Orion Amphitheater execs say that providing free water at refillable station actually helps alcohol sales, by keeping guests hydrated and comfortable. (Courtesy venue)

All vendors are asked to adhere to the Orion’s sustainability efforts. At a recent community event, a food vendor showed up with Styrofoam clam-shell serving pieces for his BBQ. The Orion provided bamboo/compostable options, free of charge.

“We have a whole supply ready,” Murphy said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Education is key to a successful sustainability mission. The Orion has a sustainability coordinator in Drew Stewart. There is conservation messaging about the Tennessee River at water stations. The venue is in the process of launching a green team with partner Patagonia to answer patron questions about recycling and the reusable cup program.

“The education piece has to feel fun,” Murphy said. “As you are part of something that’s really moving the needle. It doesn’t have to be attached to politics or cultural things, or even the artists. That is a big piece, the way we interact with people – the guests, and the tours, and the crews from beginning to end.”