Commercial Real Estate and Mixed-Use and Theater and Urban development and Development/Redevelopment and Real Estate & Retail

Concert hall component would test demand

November 19, 2007

Entertainment is a big part of a $480 million development proposed for the south side of downtown--plans include a 3,400-seat theater to attract the likes of Bruce Springsteen and first-run tours of Broadway shows such as "Wicked."

The question is whether the city can support another midsize venue, especially since similar theaters already are in the works elsewhere. At least one potential competitor isn't sold on the idea, but backers are undeterred.

"It's important because we want to make this district a true cultural destination," said Ryan Zickler, lead developer of the Legends District-SoDo, an 11-acre development planned for the corner of Pennsylvania and South streets. As proposed, SoDo would include 200 condos, up to three hotels, 175,000 square feet of retail space, and the theater.

Zickler is in talks with local entertainment power player Dave Lucas to have his firm, Live-360 LLC, manage the venue. Lucas founded Sunshine Promotions and developed what is now Verizon Wireless Music Center. Lucas' office referred questions to the developer.

The city's similar-size venues--including the 2,200-seat Clowes Memorial Hall and The Murat Centre's 2,400-seat theater and 2,000-person Egyptian Room--are too small to lure some of the first-run Broadway shows, Zickler said. And some music acts pass over Indianapolis because they can't fill or don't like the feel of larger venues like Conseco Fieldhouse.

"We're going after things that aren't being booked here already," Zickler said. "We think we're adding to the mix."

Even so, one venue operator is uncertain about the plans.

"Between the Murat theater and the Egyptian Room and Clowes, I don't think there's a need for an additional theater," said Clowes Executive Director Elise Kushigian. "Hopefully, whatever is going to happen, we'll all work together and put the right show in the right venue."

Last season, Clowes hosted 222 events, including lectures, jazz concerts, opera and dance performances, and some Broadway Across America productions. Kushigian said the Broadway shows, which typically come for a Tuesday-Sunday run, have strong attendance, regularly selling out on weekends and coming close during the week.

The local office of California-based Live Nation manages The Murat Centre, which hosts mostly concerts and some Broadway shows. During its 2005-2006 season, the Murat hosted 198 performances. A Live Nation representative didn't respond to questions before IBJ's deadline.

Legends District-SoDo developers are envisioning a concert venue featuring a lobby restaurant and "legends walk"--with walls lined with quotes from famous Hoosiers from John Mellencamp to Col. Eli Lilly--that patrons would walk through to enter the theater.

Plans also include an enclosed walkway linking the SoDo hotels to the performance hall. The venue hopes to host events about 120 nights per year, bringing in a potential 250,000 patrons. The facility also would have an area to feature local artists who are still working to break onto the national scene.

"We are a strong believer in the local arts and entertainment," Zickler said. "We don't want to take away from what Indianapolis has already established."

Still, the Legends District theater isn't the only new venue in the works.

A mixed-use project planned for the southwest corner of 86th Street and Keystone Avenue is slated to include a 5,000-seat theater to lure Broadway shows. A message left with that developer, locally based Premier Properties USA Inc., wasn't returned.

Also, Carmel has plans for a performing arts center that will include a 1,600-seat orchestra hall and a 500-seat theater. The center will be leased to a yet-to-be-established not-for-profit agency to manage. The orchestra hall's acoustics make it a prime setting for music, including performances by the Carmel Symphony Orchestra and likely performances by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Other area venue managers--mostly with much smaller capacities than the planned venues--aren't worried about the competition. The more the merrier, they say, especially if it spurs interest in the arts.

"We need to be like Chicago where there are so many theaters even on a single block," said Cynthia Bates, executive director of the 1,000-seat Madame Walker Theater Centre. Her theater is raising funds for a $10 million expansion that would allow it to book larger productions. "We've been Naptown for far too long. We need more theaters and more events."

Jeff Maess, executive director of the 1,500-seat Pike Performing Arts Center, echoed that sentiment.

"I don't see these venues as being a threat," he said, in part because they won't book similar events. Pike's fare runs more along the lines of traveling dance tours, one-person acts and singing groups.

It's not surprising to see the local scene in flux, one local expert said, given similar unrest on the national concert stage. With varied entertainment options catering to fragmenting audiences, large, open-air venues like Verizon Wireless Music Center are on the decline in part because fewer acts can draw that many people. But it's still unclear what will replace them.

"There are competing business models all over the place, including different business models on how touring is done," said Craig Pinkus, an entertainment attorney with Bose McKinney & Evans LLP.

He said the lines among producers, booking agents and artist managers are becoming blurred, allowing some smaller venues to land acts with strong followings they wouldn't have had a shot at years ago. And artists who are getting more involved in booking their tours like to see competing venues.

"The more the better, because [the artists] have got to book a hall and want to keep as much money for themselves as they can," Pinkus said. "With the proliferation of different approaches to putting on live music, it makes it hard to predict what will succeed."

"We're in a period of great change that's exciting," he added. "A lot of people will make good gambles and a few will make bad ones."

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