By Baker Ellis
Over the course of the 2017 summer, LaGrange will play host to a number of famous musical groups. The Beach Boys kicked off the concert season with a show in April, Kool and the Gang will be in town on May 28, while Vince Gill, The Molly Ringwalds and TajMo: The Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ Band will all make appearances throughout the rest of the summer as well.
Cities of comparable size to LaGrange do not draw in bands of this magnitude, especially not on a consistent basis. LaGrange, however, has had the likes of Willie Nelson and the Charlie Daniels Band play in the last year, and has artists booked this summer that have sold more than 70 million albums. LaGrange is most assuredly unique among cities of similar sizes, however the reason the city is able to consistently bring in this level of talent is simple, it is because LaGrange has the Sweetland Amphitheater.
The Callaway Foundation invested approximately $6 million into the creation of the amphitheater, while both the city of LaGrange and Troup County chipped in approximately $1.5 million each. The amphitheater is managed by the Downtown Development Authority, a talented and intelligent group. However, at its inception, there were still a number of pieces to the puzzle that had not been sorted out.
“We started knowing nothing,” Speer Burdette, president of Callaway Foundation Inc., said with a smile. “Do we serve beer and wine, do we not serve beer and wine? Do we allow people to bring in picnic baskets or do we bring in food trucks? All kinds of decisions that need to be made that we’ve experimented with and are still doing to some degree.
“Every time we’ve had an event there we’ve gotten a little smarter, we’re done things a little better each time.”
That experimentation has not led to a decrease in visitors to the amphitheater in the slightest.
Becca Eiland has been the director of Sweetland since before the doors opened. Her goal, along with the goal of the Downtown Development Authority, is to continue to bring diverse bands from different genres to attract as many people as possible to the community, not to focus on one avenue of music.
“There’s a very strategic identification of bands that we’re placing in here,” Eiland said. “It’s bringing people in that have never heard of LaGrange, let alone visited. It’s truly the opportunity to showcase all the great things that are happening here.
Eiland has been approached by individuals who inform her the amphitheater has given them new hope in LaGrange, and in some cases, has helped to convince people not to move out of the city.
“Last weekend we had an event, someone came up to me and told me she had almost moved away,” Eiland said. “She was from here but does a lot of work in Atlanta, was contemplating moving there. She told me because of the amphitheater and events like that, she had decided to stay in LaGrange versus move away.”
Sweetland Amphitheater is in its infancy, and while all of the details are still being worked out to this day, the reality of what the venue means to LaGrange has already been realized. It is one of the most powerful vehicles the city has to bring people in, and can be one of the more powerful reasons why people stay once they come.