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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The making of a downtown tradition: Concerts on the Square turns 30
Since 1984, about three million people have attended the free outdoor concerts, which have brought in millions in donations for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
Credit:Bo Mackison

For a free event, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's Concerts on the Square series has meant big business for everyone from baristas to barristers and bassists, too. It may prove to be the greatest engine for cultural enhancement, community spirit and economic development ever devised by a single Madisonian.

Since Pleasant Rowland Frautschi unveiled her idea in early 1984, about three million people have come downtown on summer Wednesday evenings where they've consumed more than a half million meals and countless barrels of beer and bottles of wine -- all while listening to an excellent professional orchestra play for free. Tens of thousands of work-hours for musicians, hospitality workers and others have been created in the process and millions in donations for the orchestra.

Its success surprises even Rowland. "Never in a million years would I have thought it would be what it's become," says Rowland in an interview. "That would have felt way too grandiose and pretentious."

The greatest good, properly, has accrued to the WCO itself, which opens its 30th season Wednesday. "It really does sustain and support us," says musical director Andrew Sewell, set to conduct his 14th season. "It would be really hard for us to be the kind of quality orchestra that we are without the series."

Costing about $420,000 this season, down from $500,000 in 2011, the six-concert series accounts for 20 to 25% of the orchestra's $2.1 million annual budget -- same as in 2003 and down from $2.4 million in 2007. When the series began, the orchestra's entire annual budget was about $150,000.

Concerts on the Square isn't exactly a profit center. With table rentals, donations and corporate sponsorships of individual concerts and guest artists, WCO executive director Doug Gerhart says the series "typically comes close to breaking even," but has to "work make sure this remains the case."

But there's also the widespread good will, statewide exposure through Wisconsin Public Television and an annual doubling of the orchestra's rehearsal and performance schedule.

One thing the concerts haven't done is significantly expand the orchestra's audience for its regular season at the Capitol Theater. "The research has shown that doesn't really happen," says Sewell.

Simple beginnings

Today, the Square bustles with activity. Not so 30 years ago.

Downtown was "pretty much in a state of decline," former Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner recalls. "A ghost town, just dead after 5 o'clock," agrees Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., whose family clothing business, the Hub, closed its downtown doors in 1991.

In the early 1980s Rowland was a writer and publisher of children's textbooks, with her American Girl dolls company still a few years in the future. Newly relocated from Boston after marrying Madison businessman/philanthropist Jerry Frautschi, she looked out from her Pinckney Street office at the emptiness of the beautiful Capitol lawn and envisioned a series of free, light classical and pops concerts -- like those on the Charles River Esplanade -- that would give people a reason to come downtown.

"I didn't do anything about it until I was asked to join the Chamber board," she recalls. She declined the invitation, but offered an alternative. "I said, 'I have an idea if it's of interest to you.'" It was.

Rowland has since given the orchestra a $5 million endowment challenge match, though initial funding for the summer concerts came from The Capital Times' Evjue Foundation and the Norman Bassett Foundation, which have now given $354,000 and $210,000, respectively.

"All these things have very simple beginnings," says Reed Coleman, CEO of Madison-Kipp and president of the Bassett Foundation. "An individual made a good suggestion, and two old Madison resources made it happen. That's normal in Madison."

Rowland made her first formal presentation to the city in February 1984. The city's Capitol Concourse Operating Committee approved the plan, noting that the concerts would "bring new vitality to the downtown after the work day ends and...encourage families to come to the Square."

There was bunting and balloons on the balustrade that first concert, with 6,000 attendees on the South Hamilton Street axis. By season's end, the crowd had doubled. Now, 100,000 to 120,000 attend each six-concert season, with peak crowds for the Independence Day program. The largest attendance was in 2010, when 30,000 showed up to see the Beatles cover band "Yesterday."

Selling the city

Concerts on the Square's greatest revenue source -- and the clearest indication of the event's abundant growth -- are the 100 ticketed tables in the King Street walkway. In 1984, a seat cost $3; this year, tables for eight or 10 range from $3,150 to $6,270 for the season.

Schmitz recalls some class-based sniping at the seated patrons even in the early, bargain days. "Of course," she says, "it's those 'rich snobs' paying for the tables that make it so everyone can enjoy the concerts for free."

The concerts also spur satellite events around the Capitol Square. With its huge fourth-floor patio in the U.S. Bank building, the Boardman & Clark law firm spends about $15,000 on catering, rentals and related costs to entertain the 120 to 250 guests at the three events it hosts over the season (the bank takes the other nights, with even larger productions).

"They're wonderful evenings," says Boardman's events coordinator, Rita Heyerholm.

Tom Neujahr, a principal partner of Urban Land Interests, whose portfolio includes every major building on that side of the Square, says the value of Concerts on the Square goes beyond immediate economic consideration: "What it does is bring people downtown who otherwise wouldn't come. And every time they come downtown, they renew their appreciation of what a wonderful environment it is. That's important even if they never buy anything or lease any space." Concerts on the Square, he says, is "one of the things that helps sell the city."

Profits and parking

Not all parties around the Square benefit from the concerts, though. According to Food Fight group managing partner Greg Frank, the "counts" at Johnny Delmonico's steak house "drop on concert nights, mostly due to the perception that parking and getting around are difficult."

Frank fights back with free parking for patrons, and by catering to concert-goers. But Bluephies, another Food Fight entity, serves about 250 meals at its vending cart on an average concert night if the weather's right. "The profit margin is not large," says Frank, but he notes it's good promotion for the catering unit.

"If the moon and stars and the sun are all aligned just so, you can do pretty well down there," says Jim Norton of Cranberry Creek Cafe and Catering, which serves 400 to 600 meals each concert.

Alterra Coffee Roasters opened its first Madison outlet in April, and manager Margaret Hamm knows her prime location -- Pinckney and Main streets, directly across from the orchestra -- means business; she's planning to have three to five additional staff from 5 p.m. until closing for each concert.

The city's coffers also get a boost.

Madison Metro estimates it provided an extra 7,404 rides last year on concert evenings. At an average revenue per ride of .95 cents, Metro took in $7,332 for the season.

The city parking utility pulled in $16,481 in concert-related revenue at its five parking garages and Brayton Lot last year; the county projected just a little less for its one metered (and ticketed) ramp on West Main Street.

The city actually gave away parking for the first concert.

After leaving that inaugural event, Sensenbrenner says he noticed there were scores of cars waiting to exit the McCormick Ramp on Mifflin Street. Worried about tarnishing what had been a wonderful evening, he told the attendant to raise the gate and waive everybody through. "I said, 'It's okay, I'm the mayor.'" The city soon changed to pay-on-entrance.

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