Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Concerts and Noblesville and Development/Redevelopment and Verizon Wireless Music Center and Regional News and Real Estate & Retail

Verizon amphitheater might be redeveloped

December 25, 2006

The potential redevelopment of Verizon Wireless Music Center in Noblesville could open the door for a new concert venue in Indianapolis, but industry veterans don't expect it would look anything like the popular Hamilton County amphitheater.

A new venue probably would be smaller and more flexible, capable of hosting multiple acts at one time, said Craig Pinkus, an attorney who worked with the team that built Verizon Wireless Music Center in the late 1980s.

"It's a wonderful venue," said Pinkus, a partner with Indianapolis-based Bose McKinney & Evans. "You don't just duplicate those things."

The 203-acre Noblesville amphitheater, originally known as Deer Creek Music Center, is one of several outdoor venues across the country where land values have outpaced concert profits. The endangered venues were built amid farm fields that now sprout residential and commercial developments.

Venue owners also are coping with a changing concert industry, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a trade publication covering the industry.

These days, fewer acts sell enough tickets to justify shows at large amphitheaters such as Verizon, which can host up to 24,000 people. Most of the acts with enough fan support to sell out the venues are baby boomer bands whose touring days may be numbered. Such prominent acts also command more of the ticket-sales revenue, leaving owners to make money on parking and concessions.

"The general forecast is more shows in the mid-level of the business and a decreasing number at the top end," Bongiovanni said.

The owner of Verizon, Los Angeles-based Live Nation, has been trying to diversify its concert venue holdings to protect itself from changes in the market. In November, the publicly traded company bought House of Blues, a chain of clubs and small concert venues.

The company said this month it hired real estate broker CB Richard Ellis to explore the sale of its amphitheaters in Noblesville and Columbus, Ohio.

The company said in a written statement that it plans to sell sites where real estate values exceed "the value to us as a music venue." Verizon sits near Interstate 69's Exit 10, across the street from Hamilton Town Center--a giant retail project Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group is co-developing--and is surrounded by several newer subdivisions.

Amphitheaters in Birmingham, Ala., Nashville, Tenn., and Kansas City, Mo., also are at risk of closure, Bongiovanni said.

Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino said in a November conference call that the company struggles to make money at many of its amphitheaters. The company owns or operates more than 170 venues worldwide.

"The industry in general is having great growth in the mid- to small-sized venues," Rapino said. "So in three years we want to be sitting here with a portfolio that is much better balanced."

In Indianapolis, Live Nation also manages shows at the Murat Centre and the Lawn at White River State Park.

The Lawn, with its 6,000-person capacity, fits the profile of most new concert venues being built today, said Bob Whitt, executive director of White River State Park.

Last week, the White River State Park Development Commission approved a new seasonal stage and tiered VIP area for the downtown venue, which is east of the White River within view of Victory Field.

The plans were in the works before Live Nation announced it was putting its Noblesville venue on the block

"There certainly is potential for acts that would have otherwise played at Verizon to come and play here," Whitt said. "I think we're in a great position given our size and location."

If Verizon is sold and redeveloped, some of its concert and event business could be absorbed by Conseco Fieldhouse and the new Lucas Oil Stadium, which will have a retractable roof.

For years before Verizon was built, discussions about a new concert venue focused on downtown. Deer Creek would have been built downtown were it not for a slow approval process and opposition from people who "envisioned Woodstock," said Pinkus, the Bose McKinney attorney.

"I'm certain it could still happen downtown," he added.

The 2007 concert schedule at Verizon will go on as planned, but the possibility it could be the amphitheater's last season is generating nostalgia among music fans.

Within days of the announcement, more than 1,200 people joined a group seeking to save the venue on social networking Web site Facebook. They said redeveloping Verizon would be a "huge mistake" and a "tragedy" for central Indiana's live music scene.

"I think the fans deserve this venue, and they've put their hard-earned money into it," said Ben Thomas, a 17-year-old Heritage Christian High School junior who started the group and has seen Jack Johnson, Coldplay, Linkin Park and Ben Harper at Verizon.

All the support for the amphitheater is gratifying for Pinkus, who helped get it off the ground in 1989.

"Indy has been a wonderful place for live music," he said. "The history of the music industry for 100 years has been constant change in technology and audiences. But the demand for that kind of entertainment is never going away."

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