Developers hope Bridgeport’s newly named Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater on track for packed concerts

Photo of Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — Whether showing off an impressive feat of engineering — the steel masts and cables that will support a massive tentlike roof — or small details like how each backstage bathroom has different multicolored shower tiles, Howard Saffan remains passionate about a concert amphitheater he has spent four years developing.

“This will be state-of-the-art when you open up the doors,” Saffan said Tuesday while leading Hearst Connecticut Media on a tour of the nearly finished venue built from the bones of Bridgeport’s one-time minor league baseball park. “It should be an absolute architectural marvel.”

Saffan and his partner in the venture, veteran concert promoter Jim Koplik of Live Nation, were on hand at the amphitheater with other officials Tuesday to celebrate another milestone in their joint venture: The announcement that Hartford HealthCare, which in 2019 acquired Bridgeport-based St. Vincent’s Medical Center, had purchased the naming rights to the amphitheater.

And while many average music fans are likely more focused on when the initial concert lineup will be revealed, Saffan argued having Hartford HealthCare on the venue’s signage, letterhead and advertising is huge: “That sets the tone. ... That tells everybody this is a significant place. Putting a premium name on here is everything.”

The looming question is, given the coronavirus pandemic, when will members of the general public and big name musical acts experience Saffan’s accomplishment?

“This is all in a state of flux,” he admitted.

Saffan said he intends to host graduations come May. He hopes that by summer, enough of Connecticut’s population will be vaccinated against COVID-19 and the infection rate will be so low that state officials will allow him to fill the amphitheater’s entire 5,700 seats at a single event.

And because the attraction needs plenty of lead time to book acts and sell tickets, Saffan said the state “need(s) to make a commitment that says, ideally, come June 1, you can go 100 percent to concerts,” he said. “There’s no reason not to.”

As of Tuesday morning, however, the state Department of Economic Development, which has helped the governor regulate how Connecticut has safely done business during the year-long global health crisis, was aiming to allow outdoor concert venues to host only 50 percent of their audience capacity by the spring or summer.

“It’s really too early to be really definitive about that time frame,” said Jim Watson, a DECD spokesman. There are a lot of variables in place, he said, including the vaccine roll out and the rise of new COVID-19 variants.

Koplik, in a brief interview Tuesday, told Hearst opening the Bridgeport amphitheater to half capacity — 2,850 — would likely not be “economically viable.”

“One hundred percent (capacity). That’s what I’m hoping,” Koplik said.

“Artists aren’t going to take 50 percent” profits to tour, Saffan agreed.

During the news conference announcing the new name of the amphitheater, Koplik referred to the impact the pandemic has had on live entertainment and his optimism about the vaccinations being distributed by Hartford HealthCare and other medical providers.

“Our business is, essentially, closed,” he said. “And Hartford HealthCare is helping open us up.”

Hartford HealthCare Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Flaks used the official announcement Tuesday to present a hopeful message about a return to normal and large gatherings “in a short period of time.”

“We’re turning the corner right now,” Flaks said.

Leading Hearst through the amphitheater’s lower concourse, then onto the stage and inside the backstage facilities, Saffan said that even if Connecticut is in a very good place, COVID-wise, this summer, the availability of acts will be dictated by the health of the rest of the country.

“It doesn’t just involve Connecticut,” Saffan said, naming one veteran artist whose identity he did not want revealed who will come to Bridgeport in 2022 but is not traveling this year.

And when people are able to attend shows at the amphitheater, there will still be reminders of the health crisis. Saffan said ticketholders will have to show proof of vaccination, proof of a negative COVID-19 test or receive a rapid one on site, and wear masks: “We want every guest feeling comfortable.”

Saffan and Live Nation plan on announcing the first performers in late March. Around that same time, the roof will be going up and cosmetic final touches made.

When Saffan first approached the city in 2017 with Koplik about transforming the Bridgeport-owned ballpark into a live music venue, the partnership had hoped to open in 2019. But construction delays, then the pandemic, pushed that off two years.

The original price tag was $15 million, split between the developers and Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration. Then last year, Saffan sought and received another $4.5 million from Bridgeport, arguing the two-decade old ballpark was in poorer shape than he had been told and that the developers invested far more than their initial share.

On Tuesday, he refused to provide a new cost total. But at times Saffan admitted he likely has gotten “carried away” in striving for perfection. He said he wants to ensure ticketholders and performers return and also spread the word about the new concert showcase in Bridgeport.

“This is called ‘getting carried away,’” Saffan said, gazing from the stage upward at the roof infrastructure he likens to 1 million pounds of steel bicycle spokes. “It’s what I call the ‘holy s**t’ moment.’”