Sands Event Center to expand, with new balcony, before 2nd anniversary

April 2, 2014

By John J. Moser, Of The Morning Call

After nearly two years, the Sands Bethlehem Event Center has been so successful that it's going to expand, officials say.

By the end of April, the venue will open a new balcony with five additional luxury suites, seating 149, along its east wall, center partner Jeff Trainer and General Manager Matt Salkowski said Wednesday.

That means additional tickets for all the venue's anniversary-month shows and beyond — including sold-out concerts by Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas, Guns N' Roses, the Killers and Reba McEntire — will go on sale Thursday, at the center's box office only.

The addition boosts the center's capacity to 2,400 for sitting shows and 3,650 for standing shows.

Tickets for the new boxes will be the same as for the five existing boxes at the rear of the center, and like those, will offer free beer, wine, soda and light snacks. In addition to seats, there will be countertops and raised tables, and there eventually may be wait service, Trainer said.

The closest section will be 15 feet directly above the stage, comparable to box seats.

"It's like it's becoming a theater," Trainer said.

The balcony will run the 135-foot length of the wall and extend 22 feet out, over an existing elevated section.

The new boxes will be divided, but not separated by walls as the existing boxes are. The venue's sound system will be upgraded to assure a good experience in the new balcony. And a large projection screen near the new balcony was raised to cut glare for those seats.

Work on the balcony started in earnest two weeks ago, and Wednesday its steel frame was nearly complete, with a concrete floor to be poured next week, Salkowski said. Crews have done preparatory work, largely unnoticed, between shows almost since the center opened. It will stop again for shows this weekend.

Included in that work was building new offices, now largely finished, in former storage space in the back of the venue to replace offices that will become the entrance to the new suites, Trainer said. That entrance may include a bar and "social" space, Trainer said.

Matthias Fenstermacher, vice president of Serfass Construction, said building the balcony during essentially a 30-day window, in an existing structure, around shows "is incredibly challenging. Anything this extensive, involving taking out walls, is a huge undertaking, But it's on schedule."

Trainer said the center wanted to open the new balcony for the May anniversary shows.

He said the work was able to be done quickly because the balcony plans were drawn up and approved with the rest of the center when it was built two years ago. It opened with steel framing for the balcony in place.

"In the beginning, our goal was to expand as much as possible," Trainer said. "The success it's had means it now can.

"If we weren't selling tickets, we wouldn't be expanding. It's because of the shows; our shows are selling very well."

Salkowski said numbers bear that out: The center has had 224 ticketed events since opening in May 2012, and 126 of them sold out. In all, 525,000 tickets have been sold in the center's two years.

"We wouldn't be able to do this without the support of the community," Salkowski said.