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Fatimah Ali: Polishing the new Dell's potential

ONE LOOK at the growth of the Avenue of the Arts on Broad Street proves that Philadelphia is fast becoming a new East Coast haven for the performing and visual arts.

ONE LOOK at the growth of the Avenue of the Arts on Broad Street proves that Philadelphia is fast becoming a new East Coast haven for the performing and visual arts.

So I hope that "Monday Nights Out in Philadelphia," the new summer lineup recently announced by Mayor Nutter for the renamed Dell Music Center, will provide a resurgence of cultural arts in a neighborhood desperately in need of summer outdoor entertainment.

The roughly $6 million capital-renovation effort - backed by the city Rec Department, six City Council members and the state funding appropriated to save this historic venue and kick off a season of top-flight and respected entertainers performing on their off-nights - is commendable.

Unfortunately, the Friends of the Dell East are already starting the season on shaky grounds by opening the box office a week later than the originally scheduled June 16. After being shut two years ago following years of rampant mismanagement, this late start is nibbling away at the facility's newfound credibility.

This venue is one of Philadelphia's jewels, and even with the first leg of renovations completed, more is needed to bring it up to snuff. Years of programming and financial mismanagement at the Dell East, which sits on the North Philadelphia edge of Fairmount Park, led to its demise and it finally had to be shut down for renovations.

But having to close its doors for upgrades proved a good thing - way better than closing them forever. However, more fundraising and and reliable revenue streams are now needed to allow the growth needed to support the venue.

The key to keeping any nonprofit viable is to coordinate the development and fundraising efforts with the public relations.

The 2010 concert series must aim for a healthy summer of patronage in order to expand its season for summer 2011.

To compete properly with other local outdoor arenas over a full summer lineup, the new Dell needs additional funding to complete an interior rehab, re-pave the parking lot and upgrade its signage. The lack of modern bathroom facilities and decent dressing rooms have in the past precluded some top artists from wanting to perform at a facility that hasn't always up to its competition.

There are some phenomenal outdoor venues across the country like the Shore Line Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif., which seats 22,000, the Greek Theater in Berkeley that seats 8,500 and the awesome Hollywood Bowl in L.A. that has a capacity of 17,376. These major tourist attractions host top acts like Aretha Franklin, who gets up to $100,000 a concert.

But the once-glorious Dell East has been dragged down by a reputation acquired over recent times of having become a dump. As an arts lover, it's been heartbreaking to me to see its decline, while the Mann Music Center and the Tweeter Center right across the bridge in Camden became competitive, stealing away a cadre of artists to larger, better and brighter venues.

But there are many ways Dell management can rebuild its reputation. They can start by hiring a professional staff that approaches the facility as a viable business and a rentable venue.

Philadelphia is a city of ethnic neighborhoods and years ago, the Dell's summer concert line up included a series of cultural concerts hosted by the city's various ethnic CDCs. In addition to music, the Dell should also host other performing arts - dance, theater and standup comedy, just to mention a few.

Monday Nights Out in Philadelphia has the potential to help put this historic landmark back on the map, both locally and maybe even regionally if the facility is managed well. Considering the millions being spent, the season can and should be much fuller than the eight concerts that are scheduled thus far.

At a time when many Philadelphia families are reeling from the economy, pending property-tax increases and smaller library staffs, city residents will not take kindly to any more shenanigans at this historic city institution.

It is plausible to produce a memorable and respectable 2010 summer season at the Dell Music Center, with plans to expand its programming in years to come. But anyone coming in to manage this once-glorious venue must hit the ground running.

Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor to the Daily News, and blogs about food at