Kathleen Swarm, amphitheater manager for the city of Salem, outside the Gerry Frank | Salem Rotary Amphitheater on Wednesday, May 4, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Shortly after Kathleen Swarm moved back to Salem in early 2021, she was driving over the bridge across the Willamette River when she noticed construction underway in Riverfront Park.

“I saw an amphitheater was being built in the same park I raised my daughter in,” said Swarm, 35, who grew up in Clackamas County. “It was really exciting to know that there might be something in Salem I could help grow.”

Though she’s worked for years in event planning, Swarm never imagined that amphitheater might be her next job. But in mid-March, she started working for the city of Salem as the first manager for the Gerry Frank | Salem Rotary Amphitheater.

Swam first moved to Salem around 2012. She worked in the wellness industry which eventually morphed into an event planning job after she noticed conferences and festivals often weren’t using audiovisual equipment to its full capability. 

“I would just want to make the best of the situation so I got very interested in event production,” she said. That interest eventually snowballed into a full-time job planning events.

Her family later moved to Phoenix, Arizona, closer to where the company she worked for was based, but after the pandemic hit, events shut down and she lost the job. She and her husband decided they wanted to go back home, bought a house and returned to Salem in the early months of 2021.

Swarm spent her time planning smaller events for local wineries, then applied for the amphitheater job when it opened up. In her previous work, she helped open a new event venue in Phoenix and thought the experience would help her.

“I just thought it was a very cool thing to provide people with these moments of beauty, expression, joy, and it really moved me,” she said of that work.

Now, Swarm is charting a path forward for the structure, which was built by the Rotary Club of Salem as a gift to the city in honor of the club’s 100-year anniversary. It was intended to allow Salem to host both community events and major concerts, putting the city on the map as a destination for bigger names.

This summer will be the first that the facility is in operation.

Swarm said she shares the vision many in the city have expressed, but wants people to know it takes time to line up major acts.

Concert and event promoters and organizers are generally booking now for the summer of 2023, she said, so Salem residents shouldn’t expect a major concert series this summer.

“When you open a venue, it takes years of development to get it into a place where it's functioning at the level that you have your highest expectations. So it's going to take some time to develop this,” she said.

Her goal is to work with Pacific Northwest event promotion companies and form a partnership to bring those acts to Salem.

“There’s some extraordinary leaders in concerts in the Pacific Northwest who are interested,” she said.

For now, Swarm is seeking smaller acts. She kicked off amphitheater programming with a series of local bands performing monthly through September at Salem’s First Friday, though the planned concert Friday was called off due to thunderstorms. 

The next is scheduled for June 7. The series is intended to give Swarm and city staff a better idea of the venue’s acoustics, having booked Salem bands who could bring their own equipment.

Since a ribbon-cutting ceremony last July, the amphitheater has also been used for several community events, including the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in October.

Swarm said that’s part of the venue’s value for Salem.

“I would want it to continue to be this community commons and meeting space,” she said. “I also think it's very inspiring for a kid to be playing in the park and to be playing make believe on the stage with their friends, and then the next day they get to see an incredible artist up there. I think it breaks those barriers between artists and audience and really can empower people.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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