New Smart Financial Centre

A Smart arena: State-of-the-art Sugar Land venue gets ready for its opening act

A Smart arena: Sugar Land venue gets ready for its opening act

Smart Financial Arena interior during preview
Stage view: The Smart Financial Centre can be configured to seat anywhere from 3,000 to 6,400. Photo by Clifford Pugh

A decade in the making, the Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land is finally ready for its close-up. The new $84 million state-of-the-art arena has a "soft opening" on Sunday, with the first public performance featuring the Cirque Musica Holiday Spectacular, as workers smooth out any kinks before the grand opening on January 14, 2017, with comedian Jerry Seinfeld as the headliner.

Officials previewed the arena for media and selected VIPs Wednesday as ACE SL president Gary Becker, whose family has long been involved with the entertainment industry, extolled its virtues in Sugar Land's bid to become more than a bedroom community. "It didn't come without some heartache or without some sweat, and a boxing match here and there, but the end result is that this city had its vision and we were happy to come in as their partner," Becker said.

Becker's father, Allen Becker, founded PACE Theatrical in 1966, and built it into the world's largest privately owned entertainment company when it was sold to SFX in 1998 (and became part of Clear Channel in 1999). Over the years, PACE produced shows at such Houston-area landmarks as the Music Hall, the Coliseum, the Astrodome, The Summit, and Jones Hall in addition to venues around the nation.

With the sparkling new facility and the Beckers' contacts, the new arena has booked a stellar lineup in the coming months, including Don Henley, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Reba McEntire, Tony Bennett, Steve Martin and Martin Short, and Sting. In addition, such family-friendly acts as Dancing With The Stars Live!, The Illusionists, and the musical, Dirty Dancing, are on the schedule. "The shows just keep coming and coming," said Randy Bloom, the venue's general manager.

The arena will also host high school graduations, corporate events and cultural shows "because the city (of Sugar Land) is so culturally diverse," Becker said. "The building is not just a place to do concerts but a place to do so much activity that is going to benefit the city of Sugar Land and Fort Bend County."

The 200,000-square-foot facility, located off U.S. Highway 59 and University Boulevard in Sugar Land, is meant to be versatile as the main theater can be reconfigured, with moveable walls and curtains, to seat a maximum of 6,400 or a minimum of just over 3,000, with variations in between. 

"The venue is really designed to accommodate any artist of any size and make you feel like that artist should be in this venue," Bloom said. "We have an artist like Kristen Chenoweth who can perform an intimate Broadway evening by bringing in the walls on the side and the curtains down and make the venue like it belongs to her and she should be here. We have Don Henley who can play to a sold-out house and it's a spectacular venue with 6,400 seats. It's really something unique and something that the city of Houston, the city of Sugar Land, this region have never seen before."

The exterior of the arena features grey stone and a lot of glass to give interior hallways a more open feeling. A park is being constructed next to the center and can be used for mini-concerts, Becker said.

Inside the lobby, Smart Financial Credit Union, the building's title sponsor, will feature a 750-square-foot interactive area called The Hub, with phone charging devices, a touch screen video kiosk, and a selfie photo station. Top-of-the-line food and beverage service will feature Rockin’ & Roastin’ coffee from a company owned by Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer.

The main performance venue features plush seats with a color combination of burgundy, tan, and blue. Fourteen luxury suites, each with seating for 18 plus a living room area, overlook the main stage, with access to the Mercedes-Benz of Sugar Land Luxury Lounge. (The annual cost for a suite is $120,000; 12 have been sold.)

During a tour, Becker ticked off other features that aren't so obvious, like a state-of-the art acoustics and lighting system, and spacious backstage areas, with nine dressing rooms, a rehearsal room, a makeup room with 27 stations ("If you have the Rockettes, you have a lot of makeup people"), and meet-and-greet rooms, with private entrances so a star of the caliber of Celine Dion or Diana Ross can easily enter and exit with minimal fanfare.

Though the arena looks just about complete, Becker said a number of finishing touches remain. "You can only imagine the length of the punch list," he said.

"We've got 180 years of experience with our management group but we don't know everything, so we test it out, get a feel of how the building is going to work," he added.  "Last week we did a 'flush off.' We had 200 Girl Scouts come in here and flush every toilet at the same time. They sat in every (theater) seat to make sure the cupholders were right, make sure the seats were right, things like that.

"We've gone through the process to complete the building and make it perfect. But nothing's really perfect because we're never 100 percent. We try to be perfectionists, we try to be great for everybody. That's a hard thing to do, but that's what we strive for."