A new outdoor performing area is making its mark on the area with a big difference. While most area outdoor theaters are amphitheaters — such as those at Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville and Community Park North’s Pettoranello Gardens in Princeton — this new one is a permanent stage with a roof.

According to Mercer County Park Commission executive director Kevin Bannon, the Mercer County Festival Grounds and Stage is a work in progress. “Basically it’s in the middle of Mercer County Park by the skating rink where traditionally there have been fairs and festivals. Over the past few years we added to it. We fenced it in on three sides. We made two beautiful entrances.”

Bannon, a Lawrenceville resident who has served in the position since 2003, adds that while the arts stage was built over the past year and a half, “this summer is the first time that we incorporate the performing arts stage into our events: Italian American, Indian, Irish festivals, and existing concerts. We’ll have some larger acts coming in. We’re taking it slow.”

The stage officially comes alive on Saturday, June 6, with the presentation “Piano Men,” featuring, as Bannon says, “two accomplished Broadway performers playing music by Elton John and Billy Joel.” Press materials call it a “tribute” and a concert that combines a four-piece pop group with an orchestra. Upcoming concerts also include the Canadian rock band with the provocative name Barenaked Ladies on Thursday, July 2.

Bannon says that the total cost of the festival grounds and stage was $2.6 million. “This was done in phases over the last three years. First fencing, gates, stone work. Then trees, landscaping, parking improvements, site sound and lighting, a plaza in front of the skating rink, and two main entrance plazas — the clock entrance and flag entrance. The performing arts stage with sound, lighting, and storage was last, just completed this spring. It was mostly funded from our capital budget.”

The impetus to create the stage was that the existing area was becoming a popular spot for events, he says. “We wanted to formalize it more, especially when we charge an admission fee. We had a portable stage, and it was causing problems. It was too much for our staff. So we talked to consultants.”

The stage-building process involved Reid Sound in Robbinsville and Spiezle Architectural Group in Trenton.

Based on a variety of factors — staff, funding, current use — the county decided to take a conservative yet flexible approach to programming, says Bannon. “We’re not looking to be a Garden State Arts Center, which has ongoing acts. I see us moving in the direction of the demand. I would like to see some opera, and on Sunday night, June 28, we have the New Jersey Capital City Philharmonic.”

Whatever the direction, it will take planning and budgeting beyond the county. Bannon says that the staff available for county-sponsored events is not on call for other activities. “When it is a promoter’s event they have the responsibility to bring in the security. We have a park vendor and have nonprofits that sell wine and beer as fundraisers.”

Promoters will also have to contract their own technical crew or use companies that work with the county, including Spellcaster Productions in Hammonton and Reid Sound.

While the upcoming concert is part of the park’s budget, Bannon says that the county generally manages projects. “We have a limited number of people in our parks divisions. What we do is we partner with WPST and host a lot of walkathons and things. We play the role of the host. We never do a project where we end up in the red. Security, parking, electricity, and cleanup are the costs of the person renting,” he says.

Mercer County Park encompasses more than 2,500 acres covering areas of the townships of West Windsor, Hamilton, and Lawrence. The land made up of 50 former properties and farms was acquired between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Ground was broken for the lake in June, 1971. The county is projecting that this summer’s attendance will top 300,000.

The 2,200-square-foot performing arts stage is the focal point of a 200,000-square-foot festival area that is ADA compliant and can accommodate 1,000 reserved seats and up to 10,000 lawn seats. The stage has electrical power and is appointed with lighting, sound, and rigging capabilities. Four dressing rooms are located in the adjacent Ice Skating Center. Parking within walking distance to the festival area accommodates more than 7,000 vehicles. Drink and food vendors will be on site, and no outside food or alcohol will be permitted into the festival grounds.

Bannon says that this summer stage rental is $2,500 per day and requires a deposit. “It’s our first year. Everything will be re-evaluated at the end of the season.” Promoters may also be able to rent equipment and services from the county.

In addition to the regular festival and events, the county has developed a partnership with AEG Live, a division of the Los Angeles-based company that has a roster of contemporary music performers, including Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, Leonard Cohen, Black Eyed Peas, and others. Its website boasts that it is “the largest producer of music festivals in North America.”

AEG performers also appear at the Sun Bank Arena, owned by the Mercer County Improvement Authority and operated by the Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum, whose website notes that “current pre-opening and consulting clients” include “Mercer County Park Festival Grounds Operational, Event Booking, and Marketing Oversight.”

The stepping up of programs at Mercer County Park comes with pluses and minuses. The pluses are the increase of performance venues for area residents. The minuses include complaints regarding sound and scheduling by homeowners around the park. County officials have pledged to work more closely with them in planning and communication.

Bannon is a Verona, New Jersey, native. His parents were teachers and coaches, and he too had a 22-year career as a college basketball coach that ended at Rutgers when — in addition to students and staff contesting some of his training methods — he was fired for failing to bring the university into several NCAA tournaments.

Today Bannon heads the $12 million park division’s several parks, three golf courses, Arm and Hammer Stadium, and Howell Living History Farm. He also serves as the vice president of Mercer County Sports and Entertainment Commission.

The “Piano Men Concert” inaugural concert — with fireworks — is set for Saturday, June 6, at 7:30 p.m. (A rain date is set for Sunday, June 7.) While tickets for this event can be purchased through www.ComcastTIX.com and are $20 reserved seating and $10 for a lawn seat (with patron bringing their own chairs and blankets), Bannon says other events will be a mixture of nationally-known AEG acts with tickets “priced according to the market” and regionally produced events with prices ranging from free to $10. He also says that AEG will use another ticket vendor, so check the Mercer County Parks website at www.mercercountyparks.org for information. After all, it is a work in progress.

#b#Coming up at Mercer County Festival Grounds:#/b#

Saturday, June 6: Piano Men Concert and fireworks

Saturday, June 20: Mercer County Cultural Festival

Friday, June 26: Country Night with Madeline Smith

Saturday, June 27: Top 40 Night with Kristen & The Noise and Burnt Sienna, and fireworks

Sunday, June 28: the Jersey Five, a Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons tribute band, and the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra

Thursday, July 2: Barenaked Ladies with Violent Femmes and Colin Hay

Saturday, July 11: Soul Cruisers summer concert (Motown)

Saturday, July 18: R5 concert

Saturday, July 25: Tramps Like Us summer concert (Bruce Springsteen tribute);

Saturday, August 8: Rick Larrimore summer concert (Rod Stewart tribute)

Thursday, August 13: Lee Brice concert

Saturday, August 22: Local Legends Summer Concert (Blues/Rock)

#b#Concerts in Other Mercer County Parks#/b#

Friday, June 26: Jeff Palmer Band, Millyard Park, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. Noon.

Saturday, July 18: Carnoby Street, Mercer County Park Marina. 6 p.m.

Sunday, July 19: Son 7, South Riverwalk Park, Route 29 Tunnel at 1 Thunder Road, Trenton. 6 p.m.

Friday, July 24: Arturo Romay, Millyard Park, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. 2 p.m.

Sunday, August 2: Tone Rangers, South Riverwalk Park. 6 p.m.

Friday, August 7: Bradford Hayes, Millyard Park, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. Noon.

Sunday, August 23: Rick Fiore Band, Mercer County Park Marina Area. 6 p.m.

For more information, visit www.mercercountyparks.org.

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