Festive atmosphere in downtown Sacramento as McCartney fans inaugurate Golden 1 Center

Downtown Sacramento threw itself a giant party Tuesday night, complete with packed restaurants, a carnival-like atmosphere at an outdoor plaza and visions of a revived central city.

Oh, and Paul McCartney performed in concert, too. He took the stage at 8:15 p.m. wearing a blue jacket and launched into “A Hard Day’s Night.”

“Welcome to the opening night in this beautiful new area,” he said after the second song. “I have a feeling we’re going to have some fun in here tonight.”

The legendary ex-Beatle doesn’t share top billing very often, but this was one of those occasions. He was the inaugural performer at Golden 1 Center, the Sacramento Kings’ new $557 million arena, and some of the 15,500 fans in attendance acknowledged they showed up as much for the opening of the arena as they did for McCartney.

“It’s a little bit of both,” said Dawn Hansen of Carmichael as she and her husband, Jeff, strolled the plaza outside the arena two hours before the show. “It’s the first night – we wanted to see the inaugural event.”

Kings executives and city officials said they were pleased with the pre-concert traffic and logistics. It appeared thousands of fans came downtown early to find a place to park. The plaza, known as Downtown Commons, was packed with hundreds of concertgoers long before the doors opened, creating a party atmosphere – a scene rarely witnessed at old Sleep Train Arena.

“There’s a lot of energy in Sacramento; that’s really cool,” said Becky Hobgood of Placerville as she left the nearby Foundation restaurant, which was nearly wall-to-wall with diners.

Former City Councilman Steve Cohn, who voted for the arena development deal, said “the arena is definitely the biggest star for Sacramento, but you can’t beat Paul McCartney for the opening night.”

“This is fantastic on both accounts,” he said as he entered the arena with his wife and friends. “I think this is fantastic and a long time coming. The arena looks like a big city (venue) on the outside and on the inside it’s so welcoming.”

Fans were equally jazzed as the show ended at 11 p.m. "I think they pulled it off magnificently," said state worker Russ Carter, who sat in the lower bowl. "It's a great venue. Sacramento's growing up, man - this is a good first step."

City Councilman Steve Hansen, who also sat in the lower bowl, called the show the culmination of "a day we've waited a long time to see," adding the arena held up well to its first major test. "For the maiden voyage, smooth sailing as far as I could see."

The city contributed a $255 million subsidy for arena’s construction, a sum largely financed by a mortgage on the city’s parking operations. Nonetheless, city officials urged fans to take mass transit, Uber and other alternatives to keep the streets from clogging. Largely it appeared the streets were in good shape.

Juan Rodriguez, the arena’s general manager, said “it seems to be going well” as fans streamed in the gates through the electronic “smart turnstiles.” Kings officials said they couldn’t wait for the rest of Downtown Commons to open in several months, including the Sawyer Hotel and a host of restaurants and bars.

There were a few hiccups. About an hour before the show, Seventh Street near the east side of the arena was the scene of a several-block traffic jam. Police officials had warned motorists to avoid driving right near the arena.

Otherwise, city officials pronounced themselves pleased with how the evening was progressing. Matt Eierman, the city’s parking chief, said about 2,000 motorists had prepaid reservations for parking spots in downtown garages. Lines appeared to be short as cars waited to enter.

“The system seems to be running pretty well,” he said.

Freeways were running smoothly as well. The offramps from I-5 at J Street, which were supposed to be the Achilles’ heel of the traffic planning system, performed better than expected.

Police Deputy Chief Ken Bernard said traffic officials saw more commuters leaving work earlier Tuesday, and assumed it was because they wanted to get out of town before the concert fans came in.

“So far, traffic is moving smoothly. We think people (commuters) are exiting downtown a little sooner than usual.”

Probably anybody with the flexibility came in to work early,” he said about an hour before McCartney hit the stage.

Post event, the crowd dispersed generally smoothly to garages, light rail stops, taxi and ride share pickup areas, and into a few bars and restaurants, pleasing city, police and transit officials who had put together a detailed traffic management plan.

Garage attendants reported a less than four minute wait to get out of the city garage at 10th and I streets. The wait for one of the elevators at the Third and L streets garage was longer than the queue of cars at the toll booth exit.

"It went well, free flowing out of the garages," city parking official Matt Eierman said, acknowledging he was relieved and pleased.

He said about 70 percent of street meters within a three-block radius of the arena were used, and parking garages in the area were 30 percent full.

Michele Gigante of the city police department said the event traffic plan went as well as hoped for. Less than an hour after the concert let out, officials were standing on empty streets sending each other congratulatory texts.

"It was thick in spots, but still ran smoothly," Gigante said. "You always plan for that what-if, but that what-if never came."

There were about 70 officers, transit officials, Downtown Sacramento Partnership guides and garage employees out Tuesday evening guiding traffic and assisting pedestrians. Regional Transit Capt. Norm Leong said ridership on light rail was strong.

Some fans traveled much farther than others. Mareike Neuffer, a travel agent from Germany, flew to Sacramento to see the show. “Every time it’s different,” said Neuffer, who had seen McCartney seven times in concert already.

Laura Pratt of Sacramento, one of the first fans to enter the building, said she hopes Golden 1 Center can spark a rejuvenation of the downtown. “We want to see our community thrive, and this is the way to do it,” she said.

Chris Coughlin of Fair Oaks stepped inside the arena and immediately purchased a hamburger and a beer. It wasn’t a cheap meal; the beer alone cost $14, but Coughlin wasn’t complaining. “A little pricey,” he said. “I’m OK with that.”

Although lines for food inside the arena were short Tuesday night, hundreds of fans waited to buy concert merchandise and T-shirts.

Outside the arena, restaurants everywhere were jammed. “This is what we’ve been getting ready for, to see this come to fruition and to see this downtown area that has struggled for years really come to life,” said Tim Harris, a spokesman for El Rey and Malt & Mash, two restaurants in the 700 block of K Street.

Terry Harvego, co-owner of Firehouse and Ten22 restaurants in Old Sacramento, said bookings were strong both for Tuesday night’s show and McCartney’s Wednesday night concert, too. He said he wasn’t surprised.

“When there is a downtown arena, people spend a little more time there,” he said. “Part of the experience is the dinner, the walking around. It’s an extension of the outing.”

The Citizen Hotel and Holiday Inn Capitol Plaza were booked solid. Brent Larkin, general manager of the Citizen, said he talked to guests who had come from as far away as San Francisco for the concert. “Just a little stay-cation,” he said. “I think it’s people wanting to make a night of it.”

At least nine other shows have been booked on the arenas calendar, including sold-out concerts from Maroon 5 on Oct. 15 and Jimmy Buffett on Oct. 20. On Tuesday, country superstars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill announced that they will play Golden 1 Center on July 28 as part of their 2017 Soul 2 Soul tour.

Other California cities on the tour list include Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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