Country music star Phil Vassar has seen his share of concert venues. He’s been writing hits and touring since the late ’90s, and has played stages big and small around the country and around the globe.
But the 54-year-old Nashville resident, who’s written for such artists as Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and Jo Dee Messina, and topped the charts with 10 No. 1 singles, has a special place in his heart for our own Southwest Florida Event Center—a venue that didn’t even exist until 2016 and sits on the site of a former CVS drugstore.
“It’s a great room—it’s versatile,” says Vassar, who hosts Songs from the Cellar on PBS. “I’ve played there two times. My buddy and neighbor, Steve Cropper, [just played] there. I saw Keb Mo there. Everybody who works there is so nice. And, of course, Richard and Jennifer are amazing. It’s like being home.”
He’s referring to owners Richard and Jennifer Shanahan. The 40-something couple is as hands-on as you can get with a business that employs 50 and welcomes an average of hundreds guests per event for dinner, drinks and shows by such varied artists as Melissa Etheridge, The Zombies and Don McLean.
When Gulfshore Business visited during shows by The Zombies and Los Lobos, Richard was busing tables.
Cathy Richardson, lead singer of the legendary Jefferson Starship, also sings their praises. She remembers flying into the area separately from the rest of the band and arriving at the venue in her rental car. “When I arrived there was nothing for me to do,” says Richardson. “I saw there was a nail place across the street and headed over. While I was in there, Jennifer snuck in and paid for my pedicure. That’s just the kind of people they are.”
If you’re not a world-famous musician, you’ll find a lot to like about the space from the other side of the stage as well. It’s modern, clean, well-lit and conveniently located on Bonita Beach Road near the I-75 ramp. It has plenty of parking and usually tops out at just 662 patrons during shows (though it can accommodate up to 1,000 for standing-room-only events). That means you’re not fighting traffic post- event or being elbowed by the per son next to you. And perhaps the nicest feature of the venue is that it is a sit-down dinner theater-type room that offers a full menu and kitchen that makes everything from scratch. If you’d like a little grilled salmon with your Wayne Newton, this is the place.
The center is also the future of music ve illegal streaming taking substantial revenue from artists, they’re hitting the road in order to recoup some of those dollars. But the rates they charge to perform force traditional venues to hike ticket prices to out-of-reach figures in order to turn a profit. “Almost all of our ticket revenue goes to the artist,” says Jennifer. “That’s why we need to make up the difference with food and alcohol sales.” (Concertgoers must purchase at least $15 worth of food or beverage in addition to their ticket price in order to attend; meals are served before the show to avoid noise and distractions.) “That’s what keeps us going and allows us to bring in these bigger-name artists,” adds Jennifer. The venue also adds ancillary revenue by hosting private events (weddings, parties, etc.) on nights when there are no concerts booked.
Tierinii Jackson of Southern Avenue, which opened for Los Lobos during a February show.
Operating a large music venue wasn’t the plan for the Shanahans. They own and operate GEM Remotes, a successful wireless boat-lift control business based in Naples. They had two young children and a third on the way when they bought what was then the Southwest Florida Performing Arts Center from the bank as an investment and planned to let the center’s founder, Brien Spina, keep handling the operations.
But things went sideways quickly, and the arrangement dissolved. Left without money for the next headliner, Ted Nugent, who was schedule for two nights, the Shanahans made an executive decision. They would pay Nugent out of their own pockets and then jump into management in order to keep their multimillion-dollar investment afloat. It was a sink-or-swim, trial-by-fire mentality that forced the couple to learn how to run a successful venue—even with zero industry experience.
Richard did the best he could on his own for a few months before Jennifer and the baby were able to join the fray. He booked some tribute bands, hired new staff and invested in better lighting and sound. Jennifer then started working the phones hunting for artists while Richard continued to work days at GEM Remotes before coming back to the Event Center at night.
(Now, with three young children, the Shanahans have assembled a routine to address their busy schedules. Richard still runs GEM Remotes full-time during the day and heads straight to the Event Center on show nights. Jennifer books artists from home so she can be with their children. And during the performances, Jennifer’s parents watch the kids until they fall asleep and then a babysitter comes over.)
“In this business, the highs are so high and the lows are so low,” says Jennifer, as she stands with Gulfshore Business during a sound check by The Zombies, British rockers who were just days away from being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She talks of chasing unicorns—top acts who wouldn’t normally play a smaller venue—in hopes of landing just one. “Or more,” she adds. “In this business you have to make a reputation for yourself.” Hence, the pedicure surprises and the couple’s decision to give up their shiny new Tesla Model 3 to be the center’s company car. The venue’s hospitality manager, Heather Bolenis, uses it to drive artists wherever they might need to go. It makes an impression. Members of The Zombies and Vassar have mentioned it.
The venue receives graphic gifts from touring acts.
Jennifer grew to love the chase. Getting Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge to play the venue was a coup. Getting her to come back again this year for two nights in March was even better. “When we landed our second date with Melissa, I got six calls from agents asking if I’d like their clients to perform here.”
That diligence pays off not only for the Shanahans, but also for music fans in Southwest Florida. Wayne Newton, America and Three Dog Night are just a small sampling of the acts that have played the stage.
And though those names might invoke a bit of nostalgia, the Shanahans are committed to bringing a wide variety of acts to the venue. American Idol star Kellie Pickler, Jakob Dylan, George Clinton, guitarist Jake Shimabukuro and the Gin Blossoms bring in fans of all ages. Pop-rock band Parachute plays on April 25.
“What I love about this place is that it feels intimate,” says Lauren Fox, a music fan who’s attended half a dozen concerts at the venue, as the crowds were thinning out after The Zombies performance. “It feels like [the artists] are playing just for me and a few friends. But I really want them to get Neil Young. That would be epic. Really epic.”
That would probably be a unicorn. But it’s just one of many of suggestions the Shanahans hear on a daily basis. (For the record, GB suggested Debbie Gibson, Ariana Grande, Brian Wilson and Taylor Swift.) “We get suggestions constantly,” says Richard. “But people don’t understand that the artists schedule stops based on where they expect to be on their tour.”
The Shanahans pounce when they find artists who have a lull between stops in Tampa and Miami. And while the chances of getting our wish list fulfilled are slim, it isn’t totally unreasonable. Swift recently performed at the intimate Bluebird Café in Nashville. Perhaps Naples resident Bob Seeger might pop in sometime to try the smashed fries and take the stage. He probably just needs to hear a few more good words from colleagues such as Vassar, Richardson or the guys from Los Lobos.
“I think for a lot of these guys the road is so impersonal. And here, they really feel like they’ve made some friends,” says Jennifer. “I was talking to one of the artists about how he changes the kitty liter box. We are all people, too. I think they put their pants on the same way we do.”
And the artists appreciate the fact that the Shanahans are trying hard to make this venue work when it would have been all too easy to just give up. That’s why their 6-year-old daughter got guitar lessons from Dweezil Zappa, piano lessons from Vassar and got to sing American Pie to McLean in person.
“But to be honest, it’s our customers and the fans that keep us going,” says Jennifer. “To relive those music moments. To hear one of those artists who make me ‘ugly cry.’ Those moments helped define our lives. There is not a day when I take these artists for granted. I have talked to so many Melissa Etheridge fans in the past week. I don’t care what your personal views are: When there is a woman who can bring you to tears like that…”
“We really are passion- ate about it,” adds Richard. “We talk about it until 2 a.m. most nights and then wake up at 6 a.m. and start talking to the kids about it.” (Again, the oldest is 6.)
But it’s that passion and drive and will to succeed in the face of adversity that has created a non-intimidating space that serves great food in a welcoming environment, and that has the music residents of Southwest Florida enjoy. It’s hard to imagine a better place to rediscover your love of music.