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lowell auditorium during pandemic
lowell auditorium during pandemic

Despite pandemic, Lowell Memorial Auditorium managers optimistic

Lowell Memorial Auditorium management is hoping for a better 2021 season after, or despite, the COVID-19 pandemic. LMG is also in talks with Community Teamwork, Inc., to use the facility for child care during the week.

Lowell Memorial Auditorium management is hoping for a better 2021 season after, or despite, the COVID-19 pandemic. From left, box office manager John Higgins, director of strategy and business development Brandon Caron, general manager Pete Lally, director of marketing Dan Berube, and director of operations Steve Purtell, in the auditorium, where they’ve been experimenting with table set up for 250 people, if that becomes allowed. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

By ALANA MELANSON | amelanson@lowellsun.com | Lowell Sun

PUBLISHED: October 12, 2020 at 9:35 a.m. | UPDATED: October 13, 2020 at 7:40 a.m.

LOWELL — In 2019, Lowell Management Group celebrated a strong first year of managing the Lowell Memorial Auditorium with a number of sold-out shows and performances by big-name entertainers.

Headed into 2020, it appeared nothing would stop that increasing momentum, as it drew countless people to downtown Lowell and helped spur economic activity.

“We were having a tremendous year,” said LMG partner John Chemaly. “It was going to be a banner year for LMG and the auditorium, and the city as well.”

But in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit, stopping that momentum dead in its tracks.

“The rug just got pulled right out,” LMG partner Chris Dick said.

Lowell Memorial Auditorium management is hoping for a better 2021 season after, or despite, the COVID-19 pandemic. General manager Pete Lally in the auditorium, where they’ve been experimenting with table set up for 250 people, if that becomes allowed. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

The last show was held in mid-March, and since then the bookings on the calendar have been pushed further out repeatedly as the pandemic has worn on.

“The business certainly has been affected a lot,” LMG President Pete Lally said. “But artists want to play, agents want to book and venues want to put artists on stages. Everybody is working hard to do it in the time frame we can.”

Lally said the big acts like Jay Leno, Kansas and the Righteous Brothers, who were supposed to come to Lowell this year, will come — eventually. They’ve all been rescheduled for 2021, up to a year beyond their original show dates.

Aside from the ticketed concerts and other shows, the spring normally brings a variety of dance recitals and competitions, proms, graduations and nonprofit events to the auditorium — about 50 of which had to either be canceled or postponed, Lally said.

He said it’s hard to estimate exactly how much revenue LMG has lost during the shutdown. But it certainly has had a big impact, considering it couldn’t hold any shows for most of March through June, normally the busiest months, Lally said.

About 100 part-time staff members and half of LMG’s full-time staff were laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic, Lally said. Chemaly said federal Paycheck Protection Program assistance helped to keep core staff on board. Lally said he hopes gradually to bring back as many employees as possible.

Director of Marketing Dan Berube said the large shows on the schedule were meant to be full-capacity events and will probably not be held until it is safe to hold them as such at the auditorium. But in the meantime, it may be possible to begin with some reduced-capacity events with more local artists, he said.

LMG was encouraged by some recent guidance from the state that some communities may be able to have events with up to 250 people under certain circumstances, Lally said. However, with Lowell still considered a high-risk community, it’s “not quite there yet,” he said.

The auditorium — which can hold up to 2,800 in normal times — offers a lot of flexibility for movable seating and tables that can allow people to keep a safe distance, Lally and Berube said. They’re looking at developing some new programming that uses both indoor and outdoor space, like the Lowell Irish Festival held last September, Lally said.

Berube said booking has been a bit tricky because the business is schedule-dependent. Artists on tour and ticket-holders want to be confident that shows will be held on the scheduled dates and that they’ll feel safe in the venue, he said.

“Any time you talk about holding an event these days, people have a ton of questions. What are the protocols — masks, hand sanitizer? How many people are coming in the building, and how many feet apart are they?” Berube said. “There’s a whole new rulebook that is getting developed that you have to have to do an event these days.”

He and Lally said they’ve done a lot of work around floor plans and crowd flow, including using multiple entrances, directional spacing and assigned restrooms.

LMG is also in talks with Community Teamwork, Inc., to use the facility for child care during the week.

CTI Director of Development and Marketing Kathleen Plath said CTI is grateful that Lally and LMG were “willing to look outside the box and consider this.” She said CTI is still working out the details with LMG, and the licensing and occupancy permitting with the state, which will determine the number of children that could be at the facility.

CTI typically has about 500 children in its day-care programs, including before and after school hours, but due to COVID and social-distancing requirements, the organization was only able to bring back about 80 children in its existing classroom space, Plath said. She said CTI is also in talks with some other entities around the city to try to gain more space in order to bring back all of its child-care clients and help parents get back to work.

For school-age kids in the program during the school day, the venue can also provide reliable internet for students to do remote learning, Plath and Lally said.

Plath said the partnership with the auditorium management could open the door to additional programming, such as theater programs for kids.

Even though there haven’t been shows, LMG has been making some changes behind the scenes that will benefit operations and efficiency when the auditorium is back up and running.

“Just because the lights are out on the stage doesn’t mean they’re out in the offices,” Lally said. “We’re working every day to make sure we can come back as soon as possible and to do that safely.”

That includes new software systems to handle booking and contracting, as well as new filters for the building’s ventilation system to help keep occupants safe, Lally said. He said they’re also evaluating a new cloud-based phone and customer-service system that should help LMG better communicate with customers, and address and track their concerns.

Berube said they are also looking at developing a membership program for those who like not only to attend shows in Lowell but also at other venues around the region that are managed by LMG’s sister company, Spectacle Management.

Chemaly said they’re thankful many sponsors, like Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union, are sticking with them through the whole thing.

“As they say, the show must go on, and we’ll be going after it in 2021,” Dick said.

Alana Melanson | Multimedia journalist

Alana Melanson is a regional general assignment reporter who has been with The Sun since September 2014. Before that, she spent three years covering Fitchburg at The Sun’s sister paper, the Sentinel & Enterprise. A Worcester-area native and graduate of UMass Amherst, Alana enjoys live music, traveling and making jewelry.


Follow Alana Melanson @AlanaMelanson



Virus housing crisis brewing

Lowell Sun Wednesday, 1 April 2020

By Elizabeth Dobbins

edobbins@ lowellsun. com

As the coronavirus pandemic impacts the paychecks of many in the Greater Lowell area — and rent and mortgage payments come due — officials are asking how to keep people housed.

“ Making rent in the coming months is going to be a big concern,” said Lowell City Councilor John Drinkwater.

Last week, Drinkwater made a motion asking the City Council to support a Statehouse bill placing a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the current emergency. Councilors unanimously voted in favor.

“ I think it’s a good motion and a very timely motion,” said Councilor William Samaras.

The bill proposed by state Rep. Mike Connolly, D- Cambridge, and state Rep. Kevin Honan, DBrighton, was referred to a committee on housing on Monday. The bill accompanies a mid-March court order, which suspended most eviction proceedings in the state until April 21.

“ In many ways it’s the same proposal,” said Democratic state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D- Acton, who is supportive of the bill. “ It was filed before the courts took action.”

Mike Weinhold is the supervisory attorney for Northeast Legal Aid, a nonprofit that represents low- income clients in Lowell and other areas. He said even with the new court order, navigating the eviction process still poses challenges for tenants, who very rarely have legal representation.

For example, he said the courts are notifying tenants of eviction proceedings and, in initial communications, provide court dates that do not reflect the stay on evictions, resulting in inaccurate dates.

“ They’re going to think they’re going to have to go to court in the middle of the outbreak,” he said.

With the courts almost entirely closed to in- person proceedings, he said it’s harder for people to connect with legal aid. Usually “ lawyers for the day” are set up at a table in the court to offer services to those who qualify.

Eldridge said the legislation also addresses the issue of foreclosures, providing some relief for people who own their own properties, including landlords who may not be collecting as much rent to pay mortgages.

“ Certainly we need to take action there,” he said.

Not all are fans of the proposal. On March 19, Executive Director of MassLandlords. net Doug Quattrochi wrote a 10- point rebuttal. He argued against the stringency of the penalties landlords could face and instead called for an extension of the court order if necessary and establishment of an emergency basic income.

President of the Greater Lowell Landlord Association Dick MacDonald said last week that he isn’t sure what actions are needed.

Many people, including landlords with other jobs, are out of work, he said. The federal Department of Labor reported 147,995 nonseasonally adjusted advance unemployment claims in Massachusetts for the week ending on March 21, a nearly 20 fold increase over the previous week.

“ It would be helpful if tenants were able to get some funds to help pay their rent,” MacDonald said.

He said the situation will be challenging for both landlords and tenants.

“ What would be helpful is if this thing would be over with,” he said.

Eldridge said he is sympathetic to the challenges facing smaller property owners, but larger property owners likely have the capital to forgo full collection of rent. Financial assistance to residents from the state or federal government could help, he said.

Lowell Mayor John Leahy, who supported Drinkwater’s motion, said banks could alleviate some of the strain if mortgage holders were able to extend their mortgage and delay payments in the wake of the crisis.

Still, eventually, everyone needs to pay their mortgage or rent, he said.

“ Fair is fair,” Leahy said. “ Everybody has to take a little bit of responsibility on this.”

Drinkwater said he believes the eviction issue isn’t just about housing, but also supporting small businesses, many of which owe rent during this period even as revenues plummet.

The pandemic also raises challenges for homeless shelters where people are often living in close quarters, he said. The city can work with institutions to provide types of housing that limit the spread of COVID-19 better than the traditional shelter, like dorms, according to Drinkwater.

Organizers at Lowell nonprofit Community Teamwork Inc. — which provides a variety of services from meals to fuel and rental assistance — said they are already seeing the impact of this crisis on people contacting their office.

“ The impact is really profound for so many of our clients who are facing job loss and all those other impacts that we all know about,” said Connie Martin, division director of energy and community resources.

Martin said the agency has seen an uptick of people who need food and housing support. Last week, CTI received $ 1 million in additional funding from the state to provide short- term financial assistance for people at risk of becoming homeless.

“I think that’s going to be what allows us to keep people housed once the courts open ( and owe) that back rent,” Martin said. “ Landlords are going to look to being made whole.”

Though the CTI offices are closed, staff members are still available by email or phone, including at 978- 654- 5607 and C o v i d R e s p o n s e C T I @ c o m mteam. org, according to CTI Director of Development and Marketing Kathleen Plath.

“ We’re not going to capture every need, but we want people to know we are open,” Plath said. “ We’re open for business and we’re basically taking care of our client’s needs in a different format.”

Plath is also the owner of two restaurants: Cobblestones in Lowell and Moonstones in Chelmsford. When dine- in services around the state closed, she said she had to lay off over 75 employees.

“A lot of them we are sending them to resources like Community Teamwork,” she said. “ We set up our own emergency fund with what we had and what we’re able to provide just to help them out. And the first two people who asked us to help was to help with rent.”

As a business owner, she believes local government could help ease the burden on businesses through tax abatements. Like tenants who have lost their jobs, the business will not make up this lost revenue even after they reopen for dining- in, she said.

“As we know it’s a chain,” Plath said. “ It’s a cascading effect. It’s going to hurt everyone.”