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December 4, 2012

Partners unveil ‘the new Freedom Hill’

2013 concert series to include Lady Antebellum

By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer

WARREN – The physical work will be mostly cosmetic — a few paint touchups here, a few repairs there — but the philosophical overhaul will be major when Freedom Hill Amphitheatre reopens in early summer.

So vowed partners involved in the rebooted venture, who held a Dec. 4 press conference at Joe Vicari’s Andiamo Italian Steakhouse in Warren to announce the endeavor and the first addition to the 2013 entertainment lineup: Grammy-winning country trio Lady Antebellum.

There are a plethora of players involved in what was referenced repeatedly during the conference as “the new Freedom Hill.”

Under a new partnership called Luna/Hillside LLC, Hillside Productions and Luna Entertainment are teaming up as owners/operators of the facility.

Luna’s CEO is East Detroit native Tom Celani, who said he and Joe Vicari, of Hillside and Andiamo Restaurant Group, have been best friends for 30 years, but this is the first time they’ve partnered on a business project.

AEG Live, reportedly the second-largest live music presenters in the country, will serve as Freedom Hill’s booking agent. Funfest Productions Inc. will handle the day-to-day operations of the facility, and the Fulkerson Group and Sponsorship Solutions will handle the inking of sponsorships, including naming rights for the amphitheatre.

According to Vicari, AEG has guaranteed at least 25 shows for 2013, but the hope is to have 30-40. Vicari said he anticipates the 2013 concert season will open June 1; Lady Antebellum is scheduled to perform June 13.

While Hillside and Luna have not revealed any other possible acts for the inaugural season, Vicari said AEG intends to assemble a roster of artists from a variety of genres, including classic rock, country, urban, pop, etc.

He also noted that the Macomb County Stars & Stripes Festival in late June — put on by Funfest and previously held in Mount Clemens — will be shifting to Freedom Hill for 2013. And Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said he foresees the return of other celebrations to the venue, potentially including ethnic festivals, veterans’ events and the annual Independence Day fireworks.

“It’s only limited by our own vision,” said Hackel.

Freedom Hill, a county park, has lingered silent and without a staff since the Macomb County Board of Commissioners voted to make it a passive space in 2008, amid budgetary woes.

Hillside has exclusive rights to operate the amphitheatre within the park under a long-term lease with the county, which Vicari said extends for another 28 years. But concerts at the facility — which includes 4,200 covered seats and 3,000 lawn spaces — were canceled in 2010 due to legal issues, and the venue has not hosted a series since.

The newly announced endeavor seems to mark the end of an era of bad blood between Hillside and Macomb County, who were embroiled for years in court disputes over alleged breaches of contract.

Vicari attributed the timing of Freedom Hill’s resurrection in large part to Hackel’s ascension to county executive.

“Their willingness to work with us was really evident right from the beginning,” he said. “He wanted the park to reopen.”

In May, Hillside officials announced that the resolution of a lawsuit with concert promoter Live Nation — in which the county was an intervening party — and continued talks with Hackel’s office had cleared the way for concerts to resume.

But Hillside spokesman Hank Riberas acknowledged at the time that it would be difficult to book acts so late in the game, and the rumored 2012 season never materialized.

Securing a well-connected booking agent also was critical to the new endeavor, said Vicari.

“The biggest thing for us though, seriously, redoing this, was partnering with AEG Live,” he said. “If we did not get AEG Live, probably the park would still be dormant. It’s that important, as I found out, to buy acts and buy them at the right price and not overpay for acts and be able to get to the quality acts that AEG can bring us. We’re a small independent going against the big guys … we were on an uneven playing field.”

While the company estimated pending amphitheatre upgrades at $2 million, Vicari said they’re mostly minor tweaks to make the facility ready for use once more.

Hackel recalled the thrill of being at Freedom Hill in its heyday — “I enjoyed the crowd, I loved being around people and the excitement and the things that were happening”  — and said insistence that the facility reopen was a refrain he began hearing as soon as he began eyeing the executive office.

“One of the first things people told me was, ‘Get that park open,’” he said. “People were very intent about trying to figure out, how does the county move forward and make this thing happen?”

Hackel vowed to work with nearby residents to allay long-simmering concerns about noise and traffic, and insisted that the success of the amphitheatre and park could reap rewards far beyond the immediate area.

“This is not just an asset for Macomb County; it’s a regional asset,” he said, describing it as both a “quality of life” and economic development issue.

Tickets for the Lady Antebellum concert go on sale at 10 a.m. Dec. 14. Freedom Hill is located at 14900 Metropolitan Parkway, east of Schoenherr, in Sterling Heights. For more information, visit www.freedomhill.net.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Cortney Casey at ccasey@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1046.