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Freeman Foundation announces larger venue, plan for 2021

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The Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission has approved an interim site plan, above, for a new COVID-friendly venue capable of safely seating 2,000 guests. | PHOTO COURTESY THE FREEMAN FOUNDATION


SELBYVILLE — After the pandemic rocked the performing arts industry, the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation is moving forward with a $27 million new venue and is looking to phase in greater attendance for its 2021 season.

Right before COVID-19 spread through the country and Gov. John Carney issued a state of emergency, the Freeman Foundation received approval for a 1,010-seat, under-roof Fenwick Island arts pavilion on 9 acres of land in the Americana Bayside neighborhood off Route 54.

The new stage will include 4,000 seats total, boosting attendance capacity by 50%. Other additions include a state-of-the-art sound, lighting and video capabilities, expanded concession and dining area, an artists’ dressing room and production space. The venue will also bring 883 parking spaces.

The expansion has been in the planning stages for quite some time, but the pandemic made the Freeman Foundation officials realize that its small footprint limits its shows for the future. But  the Freeman Foundation Executive Director Patti Grimes added that this next step builds on the past years of successful performances.

“Over the past 13 years, our shows have grown in both quantity and quality of shows as well as audience demand.  Many performances have sold out and we have outgrown our current venue. Patrons have shared with us the love of coming to our outdoor venue in shorts and flip flops and enjoying world class artists perform,” Grimes told the Delaware Business Times.

The Freeman Stage, now rebranded the Freeman Arts Pavillion, offers an open-air performance venue for diverse programs like dance, live music, theater and children’s programming. It draws about 80,000 people to Southern Delaware a year and has contributed more than $67 million to the county and state economy since opening in 2008.

With a curtailed 2020 season and cutting maximum seating from 2,700 to 380 attendees per performance  — separated into pods with four seats — the Freeman Foundation officials are looking for creative ways to boost attendance since pandemic seating plans are not sustainable for its financial future.

In total, the venue held 49 performances between July and September, and attracted 11,000 patrons. The appetite for live music and performances seems to be there, as a post-season survey showed a 97% approval rating and a large majority of attendees indicating they plan to return in 2021, whether the pandemic is ongoing or not.

For the upcoming 2021 season, the Freeman Foundation will temporarily phase in pods to accommodate upward of 2,000 people, according to Grimes. That will bring up attendance to match pre-COVID levels, and allow the nonprofit to move forward with construction of the new pavilion.

Construction is expected to be completed within four to six years, based on the Freeman Foundation’s capital campaign.

Carl M. Freeman Companies President and CEO sees the new arts pavilion not only as a physical expansion of the Freeman Foundation’s mission, but as well as a creative one for Sussex County in difficult times.

“The mission of this organization from the day it was founded is to make the arts accessible to all,” Freeman said. “Even during the pandemic, we were fulfilling that mission with live performances, virtual arts in education programming and distributing arts and crafts supplies with grade-tiered instructions in English and Spanish to local schoolchildren. The vision for the future is to create a larger stage both in terms of the physical structure, but also in metaphorical terms for the local community.”

By Katie Tabeling

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