By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | March 29, 2017
Miles Marek, executive director of The Paramount Center for the Arts, is a man on a mission: to get everyone to realize what a gem the Paramount is and to discover the wonder of live entertainment.
“I’m on a personal mission to demonstrate how important it is for people to turn off the TV and get out and enjoy live entertainment with others. I think it’s an important part of being a human being to find ways to do that together.
“This theatre is a beautiful place, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. You’re on State Street in downtown Bristol where you can park within walking distance and have dinner at any of a dozen good restaurants and go out after the show and have a great night out on the town. It’s the only place in an hour and half of here where you can do that. Bristol has got it going on. I don’t think it’s all just plain dumb luck; somebody put some thought in it. That says to me that there’s some pretty forward looking people here,” he says.
Marek is particularly proud of the classical music offerings that the Paramount offers, such as last year’s world premiere of the “Roan Mountain Suite” and this month’s appearance by the Paramount Chamber Players.
“The “Roan Mountain Suite’ was a three-movement piece with the Kruger Brothers and the Kontras String Quartet. The music was just beautiful. And we have the Paramount Chamber Players who perform here three times a year. Their work is incredible. If I could get one thing across, it’s that we have some really fantastic classical music offerings here, and people should take advantage of that. Ticket prices are affordable, and they’re free to students. It’s such high quality and in such a beautiful room. People would have to go to New York to hear something comparable. It’s happening right here, and all people have to do is take advantage of it. There’s some incredibly high quality work in this venue,” he says.
In order to fulfill his mission and ensure that the Paramount thrives, not just survives; he says it needs to become a regional showplace. Marek is working hard to apply best business practices, build an audience, attract artists and market them regionally. The Paramount also has another mission: to serve local arts organizations. Theatre Bristol, Bristol Ballet, the Bristol Music Club and the Senior Show Choir all perform there, and many non-profits hold their gala fundraising activities there.
“We need to be healthy and fiscally strong in order to be available for all that. So we have to run in the black,” he says. “We’ve turned the tide on implementing better business practices. What people will see over the next year or so is a much livelier place with bigger names on the marquee, while still providing a place for local groups,” he says.
His new marketing efforts, which rely on a 90-day lead-time and have a regional focus, have begun bearing fruit. Several recent shows have been sold out, and the audience comes from six different states. He says that shows like Travis Tritt and Gallagher will be the type of programming that succeeds at the Paramount: nationally recognized acts. Upcoming shows include James Gregory, Tanya Tucker, Ricky Skaggs and Ronnie Milsap.
“If we’re successful in marketing to people who live within a 90-minute drive of Bristol and convince 10 percent of them to stop here once a year, the place will be jumping. We’ll be lit up all year around.”
He finds these acts by staying in communication with industry resources, such as agents and managers who handle touring artists, and making sure the Paramount is on their radar.
“We’re very well situated on this I-81 corridor. We’re a great place to stop and refuel the tour bus. My job is to make sure all these agents in Nashville, Los Angeles and New York know we’re here and that this is a great place.
“We could use another 500 seats. I would dearly love to build a balcony and add some seats to make it more financially viable; and we could also attract a higher echelon of artists if we had more seats. The size is not an insurmountable challenge. There are plenty of artists who will fill the place and will do very well here. We just have to be creative and promote ourselves as a pit stop. It costs a lot of money to run a tour bus, and Bristol is a nice place to stop. A lot of artists also want to come to Bristol because of its history and the artists who have performed here,” he says.
In addition to the entertainment value that the Paramount provides, it also is a valuable economic development tool. Patrons for live entertainment spend, on average, an additional $25 per person in the community per visit.
“If we bring in 50,000 to 75,000 people a year to downtown Bristol, that’s an additional $2 million being spent in local restaurants and shops. That impacts employment, the tax base and bottom line of all these businesses. The business of the Paramount is not just a cultural nicety. It’s going to drive a lot of the stability and future growth of the downtown economy. As we get stronger, you’ll see more restaurants open and business stay open later to take advantage of the traffic. It will improve even more when there are downtown hotels, and people can come from further away and spend the night. That’s not just me “pie in the sky dreaming,’ that’s an actual fact that people can count on. It’s a huge potential,” he says.
One of the tools Marek uses to reach an expanded audience base is their email list. When he began in July 2015, the list contained about 3,000 names. There are now more than 10,000 names. He says that the best indicator of their patron base is their email list. When that list grows to 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000 names, they’ll be in a position to promote headliner shows on a weekly basis.
“We’ll hit our stride when we have 50 to 100 events divided among headliners and community shows and outside promoters. A place this big and expensive to maintain cannot function on less. We have to reach critical mass to pay bills and maintain the organization. There’s a science and an art to it. It’s going to take two to three years to reach that potential and have this place sort of humming along in a way that is sustainable.
“That’s why we have a quiet fundraising campaign going on looking for sponsors to get us through that period. In the process, we’ll look at the capital needs of the building. In order to make it to 50 years, we’re going to need some reinvestment in the building and infrastructure to make us sustainable.”
One of the offerings that Marek would like to add in the future that would require a capital investment is movies.
“I think there’s potential. All the local cineplexes show the same first-run commercial movies. Nobody is showing the art house shows that people in big cities see – films such as Woody Allen or foreign films. In order to do that well, we need to invest money in better projection and sound equipment. What we have now is not adequate. There’s a whole list of things that we have to invest in to function at a professional level. I want to make film a part of that,” he says.
“There are so many people who tell me they had their first date here when it showed movies, I’d love to capture that nostalgia. If people have a fondness or nostalgia for the Paramount and haven’t been here in a while, I urge them to go to the website and just pick a show and try it out. Come back. This is a really exciting place, and it’s a great thing to have downtown. Come and enjoy the special atmosphere of live entertainment,” Marek says.