By summer, a portion of the former mill site in Bonner will be transformed into a natural, outdoor amphitheater nestled along the Blackfoot River that can accommodate 4,000 people.
KettleHouse Brewing Co. and the owner of the Wilma Theatre and the Top Hat Lounge have joined forces to build the KettleHouse Amphitheater.
"We feel that there's a big need in the region for a dedicated outdoor venue," said Nick Checota, who owns Logjam Presents production company and the Wilma and Top Hat.
With its scenic backdrop, he imagines "this will be like a Gorge or like a Red Rocks" with a more intimate scale that suits Missoula.
KettleHouse, the local craft brewery best known for its Cold Smoke Scotch ale, recently completed construction on a 23,000-square-foot brewing facility on 18 acres at the former mill site. The new operation, which complements its two tap rooms, will allow KettleHouse to greatly expand its canning.
The KettleHouse property is located at the upper northeast edge of the site, right along the riverbank, allowing concert-goers a scenic view of the Blackfoot and the mountains that matches the company's outdoors philosophy.
In a news release, brewery co-owner Tim O'Leary said, “The new KettleHouse Amphitheater will enhance the KettleHouse brand and extend our commitment to creating a unique Montana experience that celebrates the combination of great craft beer with the amazing natural resources of our state.”
Checota said it's a way for the brewery to create "a cool environment for people to enjoy music and their beer outdoors."
The permanent outdoor stage and amphitheater will make it unique for Montana, he said. The state has numerous festivals, most of which use temporary stages.
The classic amphitheater design will have three tiers. In the front of the stage, there's a pit with room for around 600 standing-room general admission concert-goers. Next up is reserved seating for about 1,050 people on rows of 4-foot-wide tiers with grass tops. The general admission lawn tier on the outer rim can fit about 2,350 people.
The venue will slope about 28 feet down from the lawn tier to the stage, which should provide comfortable sight lines for all concert-goers, a problem for shorter patrons at many clubs and festivals.
The bowl's grass-covered surfaces will help absorb sound, and lack of permanent structures around the stage will help as well. They chose grass seating to help blend with the natural environment.
"When you're floating by, we don't want you to see any bleacher seats," he said.
Checota said the portion of the property they'll excavate used to be a river bank. Based on photographs from the 1950s and '60s, they say the bank was filled in with wood debris from the mill.
Logjam is signing a long-term lease on the property and will build the amphitheater. The Top Hat, meanwhile, will handle catering and pour beer at the events.
The covered stage with a 35-foot roof can hold the transportable line-array speakers the Wilma purchased a little more than a year ago. It's the same type of top-of-the-line system that touring bands bring with them on the road, and is designed for venues as large as the amphitheater.
"One of the reasons I invested like I did in a sound system that was arguably over-sized for the Wilma was to be able to do events like this," Checota said.
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Excavation work has already begun and concerts could begin in mid-summer. He expects announcements will start filtering out early next year.
He estimates booking 10 to 15 concerts a year at the site. After he purchased and renovated the Wilma and the Top Hat, the two largest music venues in downtown, he began pursuing prominent acts who would be attracted by a high-quality room in a smaller city, and anticipates the amphitheater will be just as much of a draw.
"They go to bigger venues in the primary markets and they come to Missoula and we get to put them in a more intimate, smaller venue," he said. "I think you're going to get bands routing between Red Rocks and the Gorge, so my hope is that we bring in bands that really fit into that 4,000-capacity space."
In addition to the amphitheater, KettleHouse's property will accommodate 1,500 parking spots. They also plan to offer and encourage people to use shuttle buses from the Top Hat and the KettleHouse.
They're working with the Department of Transportation on traffic safety issues around getting vehicles in and out of the property, which is located on the two-lane Highway 200.
In addition to concerts, he foresees hosting community events, much like he does at the Top Hat and Wilma.
"KettleHouse and Logjam feel that there is a great opportunity to provide a place for community organizations and not-for-profits to do different types of events," he said.
The space could host festival-style events, perhaps in tandem with the Wilma and Top Hat, but he doesn't anticipate that occurring in the first year.
Checota and his wife Robin bought the Top Hat Lounge, a historic venue downtown, in 2012. Nick Checota, who has a background in medical real estate and general contracting experience, invested heavily in renovations. They purchased a new sound system, added a kitchen and more before reopening the following year. The extensive interior remodeling increased the capacity to 600 people.
In March 2015, Checota bought the historic Wilma Theatre, the former opera house and movie theater built in 1921. They purchased that new sound system, invested in acoustic improvements and renovated the interior. They stripped out the old seats on the slanted main floor and built three tiers, which boosted the capacity to 1,500 people for standing-room rooms. In addition, they added more bars, installed new seats on the balcony, expanded the bathrooms and completely renovated the notoriously grimy green rooms downstairs.
The theater reopened in October 2015 with a goal of making the Wilma a destination venue for national touring acts. In October 2016, it served 14,000 customers and broke its concessions record three times. On Election Night, country singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson played a sold-out show, only a month before he was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys.
While many venue owners work with outside promoters, Checota has served as his own exclusive talent buyer and will do the same at the amphitheater.
To create less confusion, earlier this month he launched an entertainment production company called Logjam Presents and hired additional staff. With Logjam, named in honor of the former mill site, he's begun booking shows in Bozeman and will start bringing concerts to the Osprey Stadium here in Missoula this summer.
In all the ventures, he's tried to pick bands that fit with Missoula's particular culture and local taste instead of choosing acts that happen to be passing through on their way to other states.
"We work really hard to book music that's specific to us, rather than fitting them in some routing that goes from space to space to space," he said.
He's continued reinvesting in the two venues. The Top Hat recently renovated its green room and he's planning a $200,000 upgrade to the sound system.
"I have one objective, and that's to bring good music to Montana," he said. The venue and their investments are "putting us on the map," he said.