The Concert Arena of the Future is Opening in Greater Houston: High-Tech Secrets, Big Names & Grand 5-Project Plans Await
Smart Financial Centre is set to bring a new level of concerts and comedy acts to Sugar Land. Photo by Chris Baldwin.
Landing a big headliner (Jerry Seinfeld) for Smart Financial Centre's opening night was essential.
The stage of the Smart Financial Centre is state of the art.
Chris Rock is also hitting Smart Financial Centre, making it the new center of comedy.
The concert arena of the future is here — and it’s in… Sugar Land? Step through the doors of the new Smart Financial Centre and you’ll start to believe in this concept, something that would have been unfathomable not long ago. With the new $84 million, 6,451-seat indoor performance venue opening its doors to the media for the first time on Wednesday, the curiosity is turning into reality.
When you first step into the arena, you’re hit by how sleek and modern everything looks — from the blue lights embedded into the walls to the jet-black stage to the sweeping rows of elevated red seats. Suddenly, everything comes into focus. This is how this fledgling arena landed superstar acts such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.
Well this — and lots of money.
The grandiose ambitions of this new venue become clearer with every step. Especially when you reach the Mercedes-Benz of Sugar Land Lounge on the suite level (12 of the 14 suites are already sold for 2017 at $120,000 a pop). This will be a destination for people throughout the greater Houston region.
“This is your house,” says Gary Becker, the president of Ace SL, which has overseen the development. “This is our house.”
Becker comes from a family of concert developers. His 84-year-old father Allen Becker is the man who convinced Roy Hofheinz to hold concerts and other non-sporting events at the Astrodome. Think boats shows, bull fights and Evel Knievel — with the daredevil becoming a regular guest at the Becker home. That grew into one of the largest entertainment companies in America (PACE), which the Beckers eventually sold off to SFX Entertainment.
“A lot of good shows are still coming. A lot of classic rock. Big names that used to go to the amphitheater.”
This time, they’re part of a public-private partnership with the City of Sugar Land. The SF Centre is just one of five ultra-ambitious projects that Sugar Land’s city leaders envision will completely transform it from a suburb of Houston into a major city in its own right. The Skeeters’ minor league baseball stadium, a cultural arts center and a previously undisclosed new conference center and hotel — which will be right down the street from the new arena — complete the city-changing roster.
A public park and fountains will also be built right outside the Smart Financial Centre’s curving glass-walled front entrance.
And the promoters’ ambitions for the performers who will take the stage of the new arena are just as audacious. As if Seinfeld for two shows on opening night (Jan. 14) and Chris Rock, making a rare return to the road in May, aren’t enough, Becker tells PaperCity that truly monster names are still to come.
“A lot of good shows are still coming,” Becker says in a one-on-one interview in one of the suites. “A lot of classic rock. Big names that used to go to the amphitheater.” Yes, Cynthia Mitchell Woods Pavilion suddenly has new major competition in the region.
As Becker talks, the gleaming concert hall is visible over his shoulder outside the suite window. One of the arena’s unique features is that it features automated movable walls that shift and close, creating completely different seating arrangements in less than 20 minutes. The futuristic walls allows the Smart Centre to go from its 6,451 maximum capacity to 4,600-seat arena to a 3,064-seat space — and remain an appropriate venue for different size shows. The Selfie Wall — press a giant button outside of the Innovation Hub on the 100 level and it will take a selfie for you and deliver a print of the shot — will be much more noticed by concert goers. (Is it really a selfie if a machine takes it for you?) This place becomes one of the country’s more unique venues as soon as it opens.
“We want it to be very high-tech and very interesting,” Becker says of the venue in general.
With his goatee, shoulder-length hair and hip dress, Becker could almost pass for a middle-aged rock star. Instead, he creates places where rock stars want to return — and everyone else wants to get in.
The curiosity around this gleaming, light-up new beacon is certainly already there. Rich Lord — the 610 AM sports radio personality who calls Sugar Land home — tagged along on this preview day just because he wanted to know what was going on in his town. With the Dirty Dancing touring Broadway show duo of Lindsey Hailes and Jordan Edwin Andre belting out a song on stage and lobster sliders served on the suite level, the day came with theatrics that matched the buzz.
Again, this is in Sugar Land — a stone’s throw from First Colony Mall. Incorporated in 1959, Sugar Land used to be known for much different things. “It was prisons — prisons,” Becker, a lifelong Houstonian, notes with a laugh. This is a whole different near $90 million world.
For Becker who went to his first concert in the Astrodome at age 14 (he saw the rock band Deep Purple), reveled in the spectacle and endured the dome’s horrible acoustics, this beautiful-sounding, sparkling new arena represents a sweet evolution. His son Morgan (a recent graduate of Austin’s St. Edwards University) is downstairs in the production office working. His 84-year-old dad is still giving sharp pointers — even as he insists he’s not involved — and buying (yes, buying) an obscene amount of tickets for opening night.
“He bought 140 tickets for his closet friends,” Gary Becker says. “And he actually may know some of them.”
It never hurts to be connected. The backstage areas of Smart Financial Centre are a celebrity’s playground. There’s a private room where performers can meet with their fans (a lucrative side business in the music industry these days) and a private entrance to the stage where the Diana Rosses of the world don’t have to come in contact with anybody.
But it doesn’t mean anything until the lights go on — and the people pour in.
“I can’t tell people they’re going to have a great experience,” Becker says. “They have to come and do it.”
That’s why you build it.