Scot Dunnachie of Sandy River Entertainment has an Alaska-size dream. A dream of thousands of people soaking up the sounds of major music stars under the midnight sun at an outdoor concert setting near Willow.
Over the next few years he plans to build and expand the Sandy River Amphitheater on a 70-acre parcel off the Susitna River until it resembles a northern version of Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheater or the Gorge in George, Washington. Eventually, he hopes to see crowds of up to 10,000 at Sandy River shows. In the meantime, a few smaller events have been scheduled for this summer "as a warm-up," he said.
Dunnachie has been a concert promoter in Washington and Alaska. He got out of the business a few years ago, in part out of frustration over finding places suitable for shows.
"There was always some reason why you would lose your venue," he said. "It's a big problem for promoters.
"Then I found this place."
The Sandy River site is off Sockeye Road at Mile 77.5 of the Parks Highway. Dunnachie's master plan calls for a log-style stage and backstage space facing a dance area of sand in front of a grassy slope rising about 150 feet from stage level. The natural shape will cause the sound to fill the amphitheater area but serve as a noise buffer with the surrounding property. A loop road will eventually provide access and egress for one-way traffic. Family and adults-only camping areas will be available, along with plentiful parking.
"The land is low and there's sand and gravel all over the place," Dunnachie said. "It's not hard to build good roads. Trucks can easily come in with porta-potties or to pick up the trash dumpsters. We don't have to cross any bridges to get here. There's lots of timber and we have a sawmill" to supply building materials.
When not hosting concerts or other events, the location serves as a chicken ranch and a farm.
The first event, the Kashwitna Barter Fair, took place last year, before much was in place.
"We widened the roads so that they'd dry out sooner," Dunnachie said.
Activities scheduled for this year include Rivergrass, June 10-12. This bluegrass-themed music festival is advertising groups like the Brown Chicken Brown Cow String Band, The Hitzig Brothers, Yum Yum Beast and Dirty Hands. Dunnachie said he's aiming for a cross between the big Anderson Family Music Festival and the defunct Talkeetna Bluegrass Music Festival.
In July the venue will host Dank Dippers, "a cannabis-friendly event put on by local nonprofit cannabis groups" with music, speakers and a "cannabis cup." This would be similar to the for-profit Northwest Cannabis Classic events in Seattle, Portland and Anchorage, which charge "judges" to evaluate different products.
"We'll be more attuned to Alaska," Dunnachie said, "and not being a big profit thing for out-of-state companies."
Later in July, the electronic music festival Spectrum, previously held in Chickaloon and Trapper Creek, is scheduled to take place at Sandy River.
But all of these events will be limited to 500 people, the maximum allowed before the Matanuska-Susitna Borough imposes additional requirements on promoters.
The borough's "extensive permit process" is an obstacle, Dunnachie said.
"You have to say how many people you think will attend, and if there are more, then you have to turn them away. All these people driving back down the highway. I've never seen anywhere that had a law like that. But nobody in this business ever really knows how many people are going to show up at your event."
Dunnachie hopes to eventually feature the kinds of acts that would draw a lot of people. The Gorge regularly fills up with 20,000 attendees. Red Rocks has room for 40,000.
"Every state in the union, just about, has one of these outdoor amphitheaters – except ours," Dunnachie said.
"You can pay the bills for 5,000 people, but you don't want to stop there. A venue has to have a certain capacity. Ten thousand is the size Alaska needs. It's the price of bringing up a major artist to Alaska."
He hopes to be able to work with the borough to expand capacity in the next couple of years.
"The economic climate has changed. Wherever you have these things, the businesses in the area make a lot of money every weekend. It could be a huge economic boost to the local community."