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35 years of summer memories at CMAC

An aerial view of the Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center. (Provided)

An aerial view of the Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center. (Provided)

There are deep roots at the Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, or CMAC for short. It’s a venue that, from its home near Canandaigua, has not just grown but thrived through recessions and regional economic shifts. The venue has adapted to change, grown stronger through planning and become a staple of the Greater Rochester region’s culture.

The Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center, or “Fleepak,” was established in 1983 by Marvin Sands, the founder of Canandaigua Wine Co. (now Constellation Brands Inc.) and Chuck Meder, president of Finger Lakes Community College for 20 years. The venue was founded with a simple goal: bring more music to the Finger Lakes region.

“That was something Marvin Sands was really passionate about,” said Virginia “Ginny” Clark, vice president of community affairs at Constellation and president of CMAC. “He wanted to see music in Canandaigua, frankly, and at the time, RPO (Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra) was one of the only pieces here in the area, and he thought it would be great to bring the RPO to Canandaigua.”

In the early days, the RPO, which raised much of the funding to build the venue, played 16 shows per summer at Fleepak, and soon bigger-named artists hit the stage. On June 23, 1985, Eric Clapton performed. July 7, 1987, the late Whitney Houston sang at Fleepak in her Moment of Truth world tour. On July 25, 1989, Bob Dylan gave a performance, closing with “All Along the Watchtower.” From its inception, Fleepak was a venue that rivaled the bigger markets as far as the acts being secured.

Concertgoers dot the lawn of the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center during this mid-1980s show. (Provided)

Concertgoers dot the lawn of the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center during this mid-1980s show. (Provided)

During that time, John Parkhurst, currently chief operating officer for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, was instrumental in organizing RPO performances at the venue. The RBTL was a part of the philharmonic then, and summer theater productions typically took the stage at FLPAC for at least one showing.

“It was the summer home for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra raised the funds to build the venue,” Parkhurst said. “We broke ground in ‘82 and the venue opened in ‘83. The business has changed so much. It was built with 2,700 inside seats, 15,000 in the lawn. … the changes made here a few years ago were necessary to keep the venue viable.”

A new look began in 2005 as Constellation Chairman Richard Sands and CEO Rob Sands started discussing how to keep the facility up-to-date. There were plenty of modernizing renovations needed to turn Fleepak into CMAC, expected to cost $13.5 million, and the nonprofit Friends of CMAC was established to help turn the Sands’ vision into a reality.

“We wanted to build a model that could sustain itself,” Clark said, “and the only way we could do that was to get community partners. That’s when we decided that, if we could sell boxes for 10-year commitments, would people really commit themselves to this community and could we sustain it through their purchases? And we had no problem. We sold 52 boxes with 10-year commitments, and people still have those boxes today.”

Renovations took place in 2006 and 2007, creating 5,000 covered seats and 10,000 open-air seats. Coincidentally, the facility opened alongside one of Rob Sands’ other projects: the New York Wine and Culinary Center, now known as New York Kitchen.

“It’s a great little story,” said Clark, who today serves as president of New York Kitchen. “I was working with Richard on CMAC, and Rob didn’t know what we were doing. (Rob) thought we ought to build the New York Wine and Culinary Center, as that was another thing (Rob’s father) Marvin was passionate about—giving back to New York wineries. So we ended up literally putting the shovels in the ground a few weeks apart from each other. Both finished construction nine months later, and we ended up opening both on the same weekend in June 2006.”

The first couple years at CMAC, Clark said, were a bit slower than anticipated. But as the guaranteed returns for artists and the accommodations became more and more apparent, business picked up steam.

“The first two years, the music that we brought in wasn’t really of the caliber we wanted,” Clark said. “We only had a few shows, but by year three, in 2008, Constellation came back in and established a business model that would be sustainable.”

Tom Petty shows love to the crowd at CMAC in this July 2, 2017 performance, just three months before his death. (Provided)

Tom Petty shows love to the crowd at CMAC in this July 2, 2017 performance, just three months before his death. (Provided)

It was an entirely woman-led initiative, and Clark’s background in the hospitality industry shines through in the venue. It’s a simple concept of keeping the audience happy and keeping the artists happy.

“Artists tell us people really don’t treat them the way we treat them,” Clark said. “Buses can roll right up, there’s a back deck—they can hang out. We’ve gotten fishing poles for artists. We’ve taken artists to the PGA. We have access to a lot of different things, like playing golf at Oak Hill. You name it, anything they want to do. We rented a boat on Canandaigua Lake for Sam Hunt. Last summer when the weather was so bad and that mini-tornado came through, Sam Hunt was out on Canandaigua Lake in a boat.”

Parkhurst emphasizes that guaranteed returns for artists is a key motivator, but a healthy dose of hospitality can do wonders too. When Roger Daltrey performed on July 16, 2017, he emphasized how much he loved the venue. This year, on June 30, Daltrey will return to perform The Who’s “Tommy,” with a full orchestra.

At its core, CMAC is a venue that does more than simply big shows. It’s a cultural hub for a region easily overlooked by big-name touring acts. Take that from Sandy Button, a Finger Lakes native who has volunteered as an usher at the venue since 1985.

“We used to, way back when, have an orchestra up there and that was it,” Button said. “I don’t know how to quite say how it’s changed. There’s all kinds of ages now, just everyone comes—young ones and big ones. I’m just a farm girl who got put into this as a volunteer, and I see all of this music that I never would have known, because I never would have listened to them on television or on the radio.

“My goodness, to see the amount people who come here—and when I talk to the people in front of me, I’ll ask where they’re from, and they might be from Buffalo, they might be from Skaneateles—they come from all over, and they’ll say ‘we’re staying by the lake tonight.’ It brings people here.”

Parkhurst echoes the sentiment.

“That’s economic development,” Parkhurst said. “You can see it. You can see all of the restaurants, all of the places to go—a lot of that came directly as a benefit from CMAC.”

gfanelli@bridgetowermedia.com/(585) 653-4022

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