Progress stalled on proposed downtown concert venue

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Progress on redeveloping part of the old General Motors stamping plant land into a downtown concert venue appears to have hit a stumbling block over money.

An official for the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response, or RACER, Trust, which was formed during GM’s bankruptcy to prepare former plants for redevelopment, told Indianapolis City-County Council members Monday that the financing for the project has not come through yet, nearly two years after the project was first proposed.

Ypsilanti, Michigan-based RACER is under contract to sell the east 50 acres of the 102-acre former GM plant site to REI Real Estate Services, which would develop a $30 million, 10,000-seat amphitheater in cooperation with White River State Park, the Indianapolis Zoo and Live Nation. RACER initially had given REI and its partners until the end of May to get financing together but gave the group an extension.

"(The buyer) has been given what RACER would consider to be ample opportunity to arrange for the financing of this project,” said Bruce Rasher, redevelopment manager for RACER Trust. “That opportunity is rapidly coming to an end.”

REI CEO Mike Wells did not immediately reply to IBJ’s request for comment about the firm's ability to secure financing for the project. If the project moves forward, it would replace The Lawn at White River State Park, a concert venue across Washington Street that lacks permanent seating.

A bill in the state Legislature that would have allowed the White River State Park to buy the entire 102 acres and use some of it for the concert venue did not advance because it was a non-budget-writing year. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has said he wants the state to buy the land.

Republican City-County Council member Jeff Miller said he was disappointed the group had received an extension, and that he hopes to see other developers get another chance to bid on the site. When asked by council members when the extension would end, Rasher said that was confidential.

“Every time we talk, they’re given another extension,” Miller said. “I’m really hopeful we can reset this and do it right."

Even if the funding comes through, opponents of the venue—some neighbors are concerned about sound generated by concerts—might have recourse in Mayor Joe Hogsett, who effectively has veto power over the project.

Rasher said RACER requires in its sales that the buyer enter into a “mutually agreeable project agreement” with the city as a condition of the sale.

“If the city does not consent to a project agreement with the RACER buyer, then the buyer will have defaulted on (one of its closing requirements),” Rasher said.

Hogsett initially signaled to advocates that he didn’t think the concert venue project was the site's best use, Miller said.

But there was confusion at the meeting over whether Hogsett might have changed his mind.

Hogsett’s spokeswoman, Taylor Schaffer, did not immediately respond to IBJ’s request for comment on the mayor’s position on developing a concert venue.

Department of Metropolitan Development Director Emily Mack, who attended the meeting, said she could not share the mayor’s position because she has not been briefed on a recent meeting between the RACER Trust and the mayor’s office.

Jay Napoleon, a resident of the neighborhood who opposes the concert venue, said the mayor’s influence was needed in the matter.

“We need to hear from Mayor Hogsett,” Napoleon said. “Pro or con on this?”

Democratic council members Jared Evans and Vop Osili expressed support for going back to the drawing board to redevelop the entire property, not just a portion. Originally, the other part of the land was going to be used to build former Mayor Greg Ballard’s proposed criminal justice center, but that plan died before Hogsett’s election.

Rasher said that after the criminal justice proposal died, the RACER Trust tried to market the western portion of the land but didn’t receive much interest.

However, he said that back when the concert venue proposal was first selected, three other proposals from developers for mixed-use residential and retail proposals also were on the table. He said if the concert venue deal falls through, the city will need to lay out to developers a vision for the space—rather than just list it as a former industrial site prime for redevelopment.

Osili said the city should study the best use of the site.

“One hundred and (two) acres is an unheard of gift so close to the core of our downtown” so the parties should not act “rashly,” Osili said.

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