PORTLAND, Maine — The State Theatre, whose successful reopening two years ago is credited with reviving what had been a slumping Portland music scene, is seeking corporate partners for naming rights and sponsorships.
“Think of it like sponsoring a festival or sponsoring the Boston Garden, but without the sort of garish or overbearing logo placement,” said Michael Leonard, who joined The State Theatre team in May and is heading the new corporate partnership initiative.
While Leonard said fans of the historic venue don’t have to worry about the place being renamed “The Bank of America State Theatre,” organization officials are open to talking about marquee-level naming rights with the “the right kind of businesses.”
“We’re focusing on local businesses,” he said. “[General Manager Lauren Wayne] is vigilant with me on the types of sponsorships and types of businesses that would be a fit for The State Theatre.”
And while big high-profile corporate partnerships are on the table, a slate of subtler sponsorships, along the lines of attaching a local company’s name to the venue’s wireless Internet service, are more in line with the thrust of the new initiative, Leonard said.
“We’re focusing on experiential sponsorship opportunities, rather than what I’d call ‘logo soup,’” he said, adding that the move to reach out to businesses does not come out of desperation for money. “We are by no means in need of corporate partnerships. I don’t even want to intimate that sort of thing.”
Just the opposite, Leonard said. The State Theatre, which was closed in 2006 amid a dispute over rent and deferred maintenance between the previous venue operator and the building owner, is no longer plagued by the code violations that marred its most recent previous incarnation.
Money from sponsorships, he said, would be folded back into the business in the form of upgrades to boost concertgoers’ experience.
Reinforcing his case that The State Theatre is back and financially sound, the venue and its general manager were given the 2012 Economic Achievement Award by the city of Portland. It’s an honor Leonard said he hopes will help the southern Maine business community see the venue as a key economic engine in the region and help them recognize the value of partnering up.
Others honored in the Portland Development Corp.’s annual awards Wednesday were EnviroLogix, named the large business of the year, and Rosemont Bakery Market, the small business of the year.
“We’re looking to provide a significant return for our partners in terms of the 100,000 fans who attend our shows and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in media exposure associated with our shows,” Leonard said. “It is a little bit of a hump for some business owners, who would sponsor the Sea Dogs or Red Claws, to think of a sponsorship at The State Theatre as a similar vehicle. But we have more than 100 ‘home games’ every year with A-list national artists.”
Upcoming shows scheduled for the venue include a Dec. 1 concert by alternative rock chart-toppers The Smashing Pumpkins and a March 8 show by classic rock stars George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
The return of The State Theatre in 2010 under new ownership is often credited as the catalyst in the resurgence of Portland’s music scene.
“When you hear booking agents talking about a market, they like to see a series of different-sized venues where they can build up an audience base in the market,” said Sam Pfeifle, co-founder of the Portland Music Foundation and a longtime music columnist for the Portland Phoenix.
At the time The State Theatre closed, Pfeifle said, Portland had a number of venues with capacities of between 150 and 200 people, and it had the 6,700-seat Cumberland County Civic Center, but nothing in between. Port City Music Hall, which seats about 600, had yet to open at that point, and the closure of The State Theatre stripped the city of its mid-range, 1,700-seat option.
As a result of the void left in the middle, Pfeifle said, the Portland scene tailed off.
“We didn’t get any of those touring bands because we weren’t considered a legitimate music market,” he said. “We didn’t even get [up-and-coming] ‘baby bands,’ because their booking agents couldn’t see another place where they’d be able to play in the future if they continued to grow in popularity. All of those bands went away.”
And with them went a slew of opportunities for local bands to open for emerging national acts, or to network with the music professionals who travel with them, he said. Also no longer seen were the regular influxes of 1,500 to 2,000 fans to 609 Congress St., where The State Theatre had been a cultural mainstay, with the exception of a previous four-year closing in the late 1990s, since 1929.
The Bowery Presents, a New York City-based independent promotion company, and Alex Crothers of Higher Ground Presents, based in Vermont, signed a deal with Stone Coast Properties to reopen the State in 2010. Portland music insider Wayne immediately was brought on as the general manager.
“Lauren’s knowledge of the local scene and her contacts and her professionalism is a major part of what brought The State Theatre back,” Pfeifle said. “I wouldn’t say Portland is a first-tier music city in the country yet, but I think it’s moved up into that second tier, with mentions in Rolling Stone and other really well-known publications.”
The State Theatre team also has expanded its influence by booking and promoting shows in other nearby venues, such as the Civic Center, SPACE Gallery and — perhaps most notably — the city-owned Eastern Promenade park, where the hit British folk rock band Mumford & Sons headlined a daylong music festival for 16,000 fans.
While explosions like the Mumford & Sons festival exposed Portland, one of four U.S. sites chosen by the band for exclusive off-day shows during its global tour, to a “worldwide” audience, the regular return of mid-level concerts is just as significant to the city’s economy, said Portland Community Chamber consultant Christopher O’Neil.
O’Neil said The State Theatre “adds to that ‘cool quotient’ that Portland has made its stock and trade.”
“At least once a week, they have a decent act that draws a couple thousand people,” O’Neil said. “It stands to reason that when you drop 2,000 people onto Congress Street for a show, they won’t necessarily go right home afterward, or they’ll go early and eat at any of the 20 eateries within walking distance of there.”
Jack Lufkin, president of Portland Development Corp., said that ripple effect was a main consideration in giving the city’s 2012 Economic Achievement Award to the venue. The honor — and the momentum it represents — is a natural launching point to reach out to new corporate partners and push The State Theatre to even greater heights in the coming years, Wayne said.
“We are thrilled to receive the recognition from the city regarding The State Theatre’s contribution to the health and economic vitality of Portland,” Wayne said in a statement. “We are also excited to announce that the State is looking for like-minded businesses who understand that the live music experience is where connections are made with the fans. We are seeking partners who can collaborate with us to develop creative and exciting ways in which to engage their existing customers as well as attract new customers, while energizing the arts and entertainment community.”