A glance around Randy Collins’ office tells you all you need to know about the history of Freedom Hall Civic Center.
Posters and photos cover almost every inch of wall space. Some are crinkled with age, most are several decades old, but all of them were attached to a concert that drew thousands to Johnson City.
All incredible concerts if you ask Collins, the building maintenance manager for the facility.
“It’s unbelievable these people, back then they sold out regularly,” He recalled. “I mean every time you came here, people sold out.”
WEB EXTRA: List of Freedom Hall events & performances
Bobbie Shirley’s office tells a similar story, with an added flair of a drumstick collection, a limited-edition Elvis t-shirt, countless stickers and other band paraphernalia. Shirley, the box office manager, keeps her favorite memories carefully organized in several hefty, photo album-style books.
At a glance, Freedom Hall’s best days are behind it.
“It’s kind of hard to get 8,000 people here,” Collins said.
Sold-out weekends and the biggest names in music
Freedom Hall opened in 1974 as part of the Liberty Bell Complex. Assistant Johnson City Manager Charlie Stahl said that the original intentions for the facility’s use were twofold: Public use for entertainment while also serving functions as part of a middle-school campus.
From the start, the facility had no trouble booking acts: Bob Hope performed the very first concert in late 1974, and the following year packed 20 shows including names like Alice Cooper, KISS and ZZ Top.
The 1970s kept staff at Freedom Hall busy, each show bringing thousands of fans to the facility, capping out at about 8,000 people for the busiest events.
That began to taper off in the 1980s – the decade started strong with 14 concerts that year, but in 1989, only four concerts came to Freedom Hall.
The ’90s saw an even smaller show schedule – only one show (Lynyrd Skynyrd with Peter Frampton and Gov’t Mule) performed at the facility in 1998.
The road to change
Lisa Chamness, the building’s director, said the busy years were partly fueled by a poor road system that made Johnson City a convenient stop between Asheville and Knoxville for touring bands and kept music fans in the Tri-Cities from traveling too far for concerts.
“To get from here to Asheville, for many years until the last 20 years, the only way you had was a two-lane, windy mountain road between here and there,” Chamness said. “If you were going to Knoxville, you had the two-lane road on 11E or 11W.”
The Tennessee section of Interstate 81 was completed in 1975 (one year after Freedom Hall opened) and opened a pathway from the Tri-Cities to Knoxville through the interchange with Interstate 40. Interstate 26 expanded to the Tennessee state line in 2003, creating a path from the Tri-Cities to Asheville and other cities in the Carolinas.
This shaved driving time from the Tri-Cities to surrounding cities, but according to Stahl and Chamness, it also took a toll on Freedom Hall’s show schedule.
“With the improved transportation system in America, the U.S.A.’s a vastly different place as far as the ability to be able to go to big venues by traveling the interstate than it was when this facility was built back in 1974,” Stahl noted.
Now, traveling a few hours for a weekend show in Knoxville, Asheville, Charlotte or Greenville, South Carolina, wasn’t out of the question for music fans.
And promotions companies caught on to that.
All in the numbers
Chamness said promotions companies changed their tune over the decades too.
She recalls a time when companies would serve a handful of states or regions. Nowadays, she said large promotions companies absorbed the smaller ones, and the focus switched to a national lens. That can leave smaller venues like Freedom Hall out of the equation, Chamness said.
Depending on how the facility is set up, Chamness said Freedom Hall can accommodate anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 guests. When it opened, Chamness said that qualified Freedom Hall as a solid medium-sized facility.
“It was one of a few buildings, maybe 50 across the country, that were about that size without going to the very large buildings like Madison Square Gardens or the Forum in California,” she said.
Today, Freedom Hall is dwarfed by arenas in surrounding cities – Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville can hold more than 21,000 people, and Greensboro, North Carolina’s Coliseum Complex boasts a 22,000 capacity.
Stahl said of about 250 arenas in the country, Freedom Hall is at the bottom third in terms of capacity size. He estimated there are about 145 arenas in the nation that are bigger than Freedom Hall.
With bigger arenas comes more ticket sales, and Chamness said promotions companies will opt to fill more seats every time.
“To come to a smaller facility, a lot of time it’s not feasible, because by the time they have their expenses in production and pay the entertainer . . . you might not even be able to break even coming into a small facility like this.
“If they’re going somewhere, even to Charlotte or Greenville, South Carolina, where they have a very large facility, that profit margin goes from either negative to break even all the way to ‘we’re making money.’ And these folks are in the business to make money. ”
Changes in the music industry
Bands don’t tour like they did several decades ago, according to Chamness and Stahl.
“We used to do a lot of start-up concerts here – people kind of building themselves in the industry,” Chamness said. “They’d start at the size like Freedom Hall, or they may start in the bars and they may move to the arena like Freedom Hall and they would move on up. And you don’t see the buildup of the talent nowadays like you used to.”
Drake sits at the top of Billboard’s top artists for 2018. A glance at his tour dates for that year show stops in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Nashville.
Maroon 5 came in at #16 on Billboard’s list, and their 2018 tour dates include the same cities, seemingly sporadically hitting cities across the nation.
Stahl said this trend is another reason why Freedom Hall doesn’t see much action when it comes to the top acts in the nation. He estimated that performers in the top 20 average about 19 tour dates per year.
“If you look at the overall picture, these performers are touring, certainly, they’re going nationwide certainly, but they’re picking larger venues and larger arenas,” Stahl said.
There are exceptions – Elton John has performed at Freedom Hall twice in the past decade. Chamness said one way to attract acts is to find those that prefer a more intimate setting.
The alcohol equation
An additional hurdle for Freedom Hall is the fact that alcohol sales are currently prohibited in the facility.
A lack of alcohol sales didn’t set Freedom Hall apart from other venues when it first opened, according to Stahl.
“When this facility was created, it was pretty similar to other facilities in the nation that were municipally-owned facilities,” Stahl said. “It was typically not part of the practice to have alcohol in public buildings.”
For the moment, there’s not much that can be changed about alcohol sales. As it stands, Liberty Bell Middle School students are in the facility every day during the school year to use the cafeteria and auxiliary gym.
“Tennessee State Law prohibits alcohol on school campuses,” Stahl explained. “This is still considered a school campus.”
Work continues on a new building for Liberty Bell’s campus – the new building will include a new cafeteria and auxiliary gym for students and is currently slated to open fall 2020.
Whether that will open the door for Freedom Hall to consider selling alcohol at events is still up in the air, according to Stahl. He and Chamness said it’s unclear if students using the building after-hours will affect the legality of selling alcohol there.
“Where (the students) are not officially inside the facility on a daily basis using it as a school facility, it could possibly change our circumstances,” she said. “That’ll be up to the discretion of the city commission.”
If the facility could sell alcohol, Chamness said it would offset some operations costs in addition to drawing more acts to the facility.
“That’s a very, very good revenue stream for the facility to where we could possibly lessen the amount of money we require from the general fund,” she noted.
“How the pendulum swung”: The future of Freedom Hall
Freedom Hall looks different than it did 45 years ago, but Chamness and Stahl said they don’t see it as a bad thing.
Some of the changes are physical – the city invested millions into the facility several years ago to renovate it, build a new roof, replace the HVAC system and improve the lighting.
Since 2014, Freedom Hall has hosted East Tennessee State University’s basketball games, putting 16-18 more events on the Freedom Hall calendar each year.
Stahl called the facility’s future “bright.”
“We have been a very attractive venue for national acts in the past and there’s no reason not to think that those certain specific acts could not come back to Freedom Hall in the future,” he said.
Chamness reflected on the transition from music-packed weekends to family-friendly events to ETSU’s basketball home base.
Freedom Hall is a multi-purpose facility, she added, and though there are things the facility can’t accommodate due to its size or alcohol restrictions, she said she and city officials are active in the market and open to new ideas.
“I think you’re going to see us here for a long time,” Chamness said. “Just because of the way the pendulum swung, that could happen again, it’s just like anything else. It just kind of goes on an upswing and downswing and they may see a different future 10 years from now.”