Party’s over at arts center

The state issued an abrupt last call for alcohol in the parking lot of the PNC Bank Arts Center last week, ending a decades-long tradition of preconcert tailgating.

It seems the winds of change were blowing in that direction since the first concert of the season, when about a dozen underagers were hospitalized due to alcohol-related illnesses. Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth/ Middlesex) seized the moment to push for a crackdown on underage drinking at the Holmdel arena, even calling for the revocation of its liquor license. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the concert promotions company leasing the facility, Live Nation, responded by substantially beefing up parking lot security at the shows most likely to attract younger crowds. In the concerts to follow, teens were charged with underage drinking by the dozens.

If the minors got the message from those arrests, and the numbers started going down, it seemed there was still a chance the controversy would blow over. That didn’t happen. Hundreds more were charged at the last few events, and it became apparent the new strategy wasn’t working, despite officials’ best efforts.

And then there was Ozzfest. It was bad enough that some 80 people – far more than any show of the summer – were charged with underage drinking and disorderly persons offenses. The shocking deaths of two fans pushed the situation to a point of no return, and left the state with no choice but to act.

The parking lot situation leaves a somewhat murky future for the arts center as a draw for arena rock shows. We don’t foresee any significant financial backlash for the remainder of this season, since most tickets are already purchased and there’s only a few concerts left. What happens next year is anyone’s guess.

There can be no question the arts center’s popularity with concertgoers will plummet significantly. For fans paying to attend large arena rock tours, preshow tailgate parties and the concerts are often closely intertwined, two parts of a full-day experience they plan for and look forward to for months. That couldn’t be truer than it is with today’s scheduled acts, former Grateful Dead member Bob Weir and his band Rat Dog, which has a dedicated fan base willing to tour along with them from city to city. With its famed preshow atmosphere tamped down, a show like this will no doubt be a tougher sell in the future, as some fans will instead choose to see them in Philadelphia, Camden, Jones Beach or some other regional arena.

It will also be interesting to see if the corporate concert promoters are as eager to lease the arts center in the years ahead. The potential for a less lucrative season is bad enough, especially given that attendance figures at touring concerts have lagged nationally in recent years. Now whoever runs the arts center will also face added public scrutiny for every time someone is arrested or hurt there.