Summerfest to build new U.S. Cellular stage

Will replace existing stage sponsored by the wireless carrier

Renderings prepared by Eppstein Uhen Architects of the new U.S. Cellular Connection stage planned for the north end of the Summerfest grounds.

Milwaukee World Festival, Inc, the nonprofit organization that runs Summerfest, on Thursday announced plans for a new U.S. Cellular-sponsored stage on the north end of Henry Maier Festival Park.

The new stage, which will replace the existing U.S. Cellular stage on the Summerfest grounds, will be completed by 2018 to coincide with the completion of the lakefront gateway project, according to Milwaukee World Festival chief executive officer Don Smiley. The construction plans are subject to approval by the Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners, which governs the nonprofit’s lease of the festival grounds. The current lease runs through 2030.

The new stage, designed by Eppstein Uhen Architects, will feature a larger performance area, improved amenities for artists, a 25-foot LED video screen, an open-air backstage loft area for performers, mobile device charging stations around the stage area, benches with charging ports along the lakefront and a redesigned bar area.

The current U.S. Cellular stage hosts primarily new and emerging alternative and independent rock acts and will be demolished immediately following the conclusion of Summerfest 2017. Once the new stage is completed in its place in 2018, it will host primarily country and pop music acts.

“The general appeal of that genre growth, it’s acceptance across multiple age demographics just aligns with our customers tremendously in Milwaukee and the whole Wisconsin area,” said U.S. Cellular executive vice president of operations Jay Ellison. “This is a destination event and we think that’s one of the most popular musical genres to be involved in.”

Smiley said Summerfest will continue to book alternative and independent rock acts, but will spread them out among different stages beginning in 2018, rather than having them all perform at the U.S. Cellular stage.

“It’s not like we’re not going to offer that genre that music, it’s just going to be spread out a little bit more,” he said.

Smiley said the cost of the project will end up “in the millions” but did not provide a specific estimate. U.S. Cellular will pay for the majority of the construction costs and Milwaukee World Festival will pick up the tab for subterranean infrastructure improvements and some other unspecified costs related to the project.

The new stage is expected to seat 9,000 fans.

Smiley said building the new stage is the “first step” in renovating the north end of the Henry Maier Festival grounds. Milwaukee World Festival has completed $65 million in improvements to its facilities, primarily on the southern end of the grounds, since Smiley took over as CEO in June 2004, including a two-phase, $35 million construction project from 2010 to 2012 on the South Gate and box office, the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage and the waterfront BMO Harris Pavilion stage.

“We were charged by our board of directors to start moving mid-to-north and start improving that part of the grounds,” Smiley said. “This is really the first step in doing so. This will also be completed in time to coincide with the lakefront gateway project, which will be a new front door to Milwaukee.”

Along with the construction project announcement, U.S. Cellular also announced it has agreed to a new 10-year sponsorship agreement for Summerfest. U.S. Cellular began sponsoring the festival in 2005.

“I think it’s our job as stewards of this property to do the best we can in the infrastructure of this property and keep improving because the competition is really global in nature for these bands,” Smiley said. “Whether they’re on the grounds or in the amphitheater, we compete globally.

“The worst thing that can happen is your infrastructure starts going down hill. If you’re not going forward you are absolutely going backwards.”

A BizTimes cover story published in June took a behind-the-scenes look at how Summerfest organizers book headliners, how much performers are paid and Milwaukee World Festival’s plans for the future of the event amid ongoing changes in the music industry.

Smiley told BizTimes this summer that Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. is eventually planning to replace the 23,000-seat Marcus Amphitheater on the festival grounds over the next few years.

In September, Milwaukee World Festival released plans for renovations to the Miller Lite Oasis that will be completed in time for the opening of the 50th edition of Summerfest in June 2017.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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