This weekend's Downtown Hoedown kicks off a lively summer for the riverfront space


Rascal Flatts and Darius Rucker are headlining this weekend's Downtown Hoedown, but the West Riverfront Park may very well be the star of the show.

The space, nestled along the Detroit Riverfront between Joe Louis Arena and the Ambassador Bridge, will be home to several big concert events this summer, including Jimmy Buffett (June 25) and the two-day Mo Pop Festival (July 25-26). When the Hoedown starts up at 4 p.m. Friday, promoters said they hope it marks the kickoff of a new era for concertgoing in the city.

"It's just a perfect, perfect site for an outdoor festival," said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, which is putting on the Hoedown and Buffett shows. "In the evening when you look to the side and you see the river, and you look behind you and see the bridge all lit up, you'll get a view of downtown Detroit that you really haven't seen before. The city feels good, and you're outdoors and you're on the river."

The grassy site, on West Jefferson behind the main post office, got its first test last August when Detroit R&B singer Kem held his annual Mack and Third benefit concert. Reviews were positive, and the response helped pave the way for this year's slate of shows.

Depending how it is scaled, the site can accommodate up to 50,000 people, promoters say. But public awareness has been a hurdle — "West Riverfront Park" doesn't have any name recognition among concertgoers. "That's one of our battles right now," Wilson said. "People are still trying to figure out, 'OK, I hear it, where is it?'"

Other logistical questions about the site remain: Where do I park? Are there bathrooms? Wilson is confident the Hoedown, which he said will draw daily crowds of 20,000-25,000, will set the record straight.

Questions about the site and its unfamiliarity with concertgoers may have contributed to the cancellation of the season's first concert, a planned May 29 show by R. Kelly. The show was scrubbed from the schedule eight days before the event, and while the official reason was a "scheduling conflict," that is often industry code for low ticket sales. (Kelly, for his part, has pledged to return to Detroit in the fall.)

The 20-acre West Riverfront Park, which had been closed to the public since the 1970s (for years it was home to a newspaper printing plant), was purchased by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy in 2007, and $5 million was spent redeveloping the land before it was opened to the public last year.

Several promoters had approached the conservancy with plans to develop the park into a concert venue, said DRC president and CEO Marc Wallace, who saw those opportunities as a chance to drive people to the park.

"It's something we can do in these early stages of the park to acclimate it and get new people to come down and experience that part of the river," he said. "A concert as a way to welcome people back is a great thing."

Wallace said he doesn't have any preconceived notions about the space or what it could become, nor does he have an agenda in mind for the space.

"Our only goal is to make sure we build a park our residents in Detroit and Metro Detroit love," he said. "And we want to make sure it's flexible so that it's not a park just for kids, it's not a park just for retirees, it's a park for everyone."

As is, the area is bare bones: no running water, no bathrooms, no power. Those things need to be brought in for concerts.

There is ample parking in the area. Promoters for the Hoedown are pointing people to the Joe Louis Arena parking garage, located just up Jefferson, as well as the executive garage at the next door Riverfront Apartments. There also will be a lot attached to the concert site along the river, and the Joe Louis People Mover stop is nearby.

People coming down for the Hoedown this weekend will be wowed by the site, Wallace said.

"They'll be amazed by how beautiful it is and how big it is," he said. "I'm very confident the event is going to be world class."

Mo Pop Festival producer Jason Rogalewski came across West Riverfront Park when he was looking for a place downtown to relocate the event, which launched at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre in Sterling Heights in 2013. He was considering Milliken State Park, along the Detroit River east of the Renaissance Center, when the conservancy pitched him on West Riverfront.

"We went and checked it out, and we completely agreed that it was the better location for an event like this," said Rogalewski, who works for the local arm of concert promoter AEG Live.

Mo Pop is a two-day indie rock and pop festival, and features a bill headlined by Modest Mouse and Passion Pit. In addition to music, it also will highlight art installations, food trucks and craft beers.

In terms of utilizing the space for concerts, West Riverfront Park has several pluses, said Mo Pop's Dan McGowan.

"It's big, it's largely flat, and it's already fenced, which is great for us," he said. At last year's Mack and Third concert, access to the river was limited, but Mo Pop plans on utilizing the river as much as possible.

"We're embracing the river, because it's one of the great assets of the city," McGowan said.

If all goes well, Mo Pop, which expects around 10,000 fans per day, will continue at West Riverfront Park in the future.

"We like the site. Assuming everybody is happy after the fact, we'd like to keep the event there," McGowan said. "There's a variety of events happening there this summer, but what will be interesting is to see how things evolve for next year. Once everybody has run these events through and we understand how the site works, next year everybody will be able to build off the strengths of the site and really see more of that transformation."

Going into this weekend, Wilson and his team will be looking at traffic patterns, flow to bathrooms, concessions sales and fan experience to see where they can improve and how they can make the site better going forward.

"This year is sort of a test run, because we're going to learn a lot. You go into these things and you know everything — until you do it. Then you realize, maybe you didn't," Wilson said.

"This year, let's make sure it's a viable location. We're convinced it is, now let's prove it to ourselves."

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