The Freeman Stage at Bayside exploring expansion options

SELBYVILLE – It’s about a five-minute drive from Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett’s Frankford-area home to The Freeman Stage at Bayside – the outdoor arts and entertainment venue that draws tens of thousands patrons annually.

“Can you hear the music at night?” asked County Council colleague George Cole, R-Ocean View.

Freeman stage logo

“I can at times, based on the wind. But it’s not a bad thing,” said Mr. Arlett, R-Frankford. County Council’s April 13 meeting featured a presentation on The Freeman Stage at Bayside’s history, its mission and a peek into the future that might include expansion.

Located between Selbyville and Fenwick Island, the venue can accommodate several thousand patrons for marquee performances, which this year feature 16 national recording acts, among them Daryl Hall & John Oates, Rosanne Cash, The Beach Boys, Heart and Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.

“We can accommodate 2,400 people during our national recording artists,” said Freeman Executive Director Patti Grimes. “But the fact of the matter is that we are bursting at our seams. So right now our board is leading us through a due diligence process that we’re getting feedback and doing all kinds of work to see if the community will financially support a larger outdoor center. We can’t do it alone; we won’t do it alone.”

Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Lewes, asked if any new venue might be enclosed.

“Actually, in our initial feedback that we have done, what we’ve heard from our patrons is they actually love being outside. Our plans do have a covered roof area for probably about 1,000,” said Ms. Grimes, who oversees programming and performances at The Freeman Stage at Bayside. “We are excited about what that future might hold and next year I hope to be back in Council chambers, talking to you about what that might look like. We are actually stepping out and making a bigger conversation about what our facility might look like in the future.”

A nonprofit organization, the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation was established in 2007, honoring Josh Freeman, former chairman of the Carl M. Freeman Foundation following his untimely death in December of 2006.

“We are a foundation on a mission. Our mission has been consistent with partnering to present memorable performances and inspired arts education for all. I think as Council knows, those last two words are very important to us, ‘for all,’” said Ms. Grimes.

Over a 7-year period, some 205,000 people have experienced the arts at the outdoor stage.

“And 50,000 of those are children and students, or underserved groups that otherwise would not have the opportunity to see high-quality arts performances,” said Ms. Grimes.

The Freeman Stage at Bayside’s programming tentacles reach many more children and students through various outreach programs.

“This is hugely impactful in many ways in our community, obviously for the jobs but the outreach to the community,” said Mr. Arlett. “You guys do more than just the performances on stage, as we all know.”

In the past seven years, The Freeman Stage at Bayside has contributed an estimated $6 million into the local economy. “That doesn’t include the tourism dollars, just the arts matrix that we get from Delaware Division of the Arts and Arts for America,” she said.

Last year, approximately 14,000 volunteer hours from about 100 volunteers equated to an estimated $300,000 in savings that is put back into the Foundation’s programmatic activity, Ms. Grimes said.

In its support, County Council allocated $10,000 to support The Freeman Stage at Bayside programs in the current fiscal budget.

Mr. Cole noted Sussex County does not support a countywide arts program as other counties do.

“You may in the future want to impress upon us … tell us sometime how much money the County possibly is saving by just your arts program; the impact of savings to the taxpayers by volunteers and donations,” Mr. Cole said.

Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, grilled Ms. Grimes on fair competition.

“Do we feel like we are a little bit of competition to the other organizations like the Harrington fair and these other places?” said Mr. Wilson. “I am a firm believer in the supply and demand here and also a free market system. If we should supply you money for all these reasons and we don’t supply these others, is that really just competition?”

“With these additional festivals that are coming into the state and with the fair, Sussex County, Kent County and the State of Delaware is becoming known as an arts destination,” said Ms. Grimes. “The fact of the matter is … all of those help bring the economy up and more opportunity in the spirit of what the patron likes to be able to attend those. So we welcome the competition; we don’t see it as that. We see that as collaboration. We cannot book the same acts as the fair does, so we really enjoy giving Sussex Countians and tourists a choice in the type of programs.”

“It’s really not competition when you are subsidized by the County and the other organizations are not subsidized by the County. That’s the way I see it,” said Mr. Wilson.

“I will say that subsidy that we receive from the County is really for all of the students,” said Ms. Grimes, adding that the County’s contribution became a 150-percent investment. “What you gave we were actually able to leverage that with other corporations and grants.”

“Thank you for what you’re doing and thank you for what you are doing for the kids,” said County Council President Michael Vincent, R-Seaford.

For more information, visit The Freeman Stage at Bayside website at


News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at

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