Lakewood Ranch looks to launch 'Winterfest' concert event in winter of 2013

nwilliams@bradenton.comOctober 9, 2012 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Music has been on the mind of Rex Jensen a lot since August.

Specifically, the idea of hosting an open-air, multi-day concert series to be called Winterfest, inspired by Milwaukee's massive 45-year-old music Summerfest that annually attracts more than 700 bands and tens of thousands of fans.

Jensen, president and chief executive officer of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, has gone so far as to visit Milwaukee's concert venue. He came away impressed with what he saw.

In an exclusive sit-down interview with the Bradenton Herald on Monday, Jensen sketched out a concept that would have Winterfest opening small with up-and-coming bands in the winter of 2013 and growing larger year to year.

He doesn't envision it growing as large as the big event in Milwaukee -- not anytime soon, anyway -- or being competition for closer arenas, like the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

But he figures SMR, with its 21,000 acres of property, has plenty of room for a concert series. Possible sites include Premier Sports Campus, Sarasota Polo Grounds or elsewhere. An outdoor concert would work because of Florida's mild winters, cooler temperatures and little threat of rain.

What kind of bands might fans expect?

"You have to choose the acts carefully. This is not a heavy metal community," Jensen said, allowing that he does have Led Zeppelin on his smart phone, along with Shack Shakers, Florence and the Machine, and Lucinda Williams, among others.

While SMR has several contacts with the music industry, Jensen said, "This is not our day job."

Rather than SMR trying to manage an up-and-coming music fest, Jensen said he would hope his company could find a partner whose specialty is pulling together concerts.

Harry Tyler, owner and operator of Fat Harry Productions, a Florida-based talent and promotions agency, said the concept could be successful in the Bradenton-area market.

"People would travel for good shows," he said.

Tyler has produced concerts in Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville. He said successful music festivals require major funding, connections and experience.

"When it comes down to it, shows can work in any market," he said. "In the end, you have to know what you're doing. Can it work? Sure. But it's not easy being a concert producer. It's pretty competitive."

In addition to bringing a new entertainment event to the area, there is another reason for trying to launch Winterfest: the need for more hotels at Lakewood Ranch.

Premier Sports Campus is already filling hotel rooms for miles around with its massive soccer matches and other big events played on grass fields. Nathan Benderson Park, about a mile from Lakewood Ranch, also attracts thousands to its rowing competitions.

The second Labor Day soccer tournament at the Premier Sports Campus attracted about 19,000 amateur athletes and fans, generating in excess of $13 million in economic impact to the region, SMR said in a press release Monday.

"The tournament this year was noticeably bigger and better than last year," said Rob Ferguson, corporate director of sales for Kinsman Hotels, in the press release. "This year we basically sold out two months prior to the event at the Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn and Suites in Lakewood Ranch. The teams were great for the hotel as they not only rented rooms but purchased food and beverage from us and most of the restaurants in the area."

Jensen believes a music festival would draw another influx of visitors.

Winterfest could be the draw that turns heads in the hospitality industry.

"You need to build a track record that the room nights are here," said Brian Kennelly, president of Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty.

For years, SMR has wanted to attract more hotels, but a tough economy has made that a tough sell.

Hotels need more than an occasional big event on Saturday and Sunday. They also need room nights during the week, Jensen said.

"I can recall when we did the Jazz Fest and Music Under the Stars, those were great events. We are going to try to build this over time," Jensen said. "If we were to put the word out now that we're going to try to do this next winter, I don't think that there is any doubt that it can be a success."

Noted Tyler: "It probably won't make money in year one, but year two or three, you should be able to get a festival off the ground."

Winterfest could make its way onto the South Florida circuit that bands like to book.

"I have to believe that many of these bands would like to be here in the winter," Jensen said.

Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-748-0411, ext.7049 or tweet @_1NickWilliams. James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1

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