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Madison's Live Nation - backed FPC Live plans to open a new Milwaukee music venue

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FPC Live, a division of Madison-based Frank Productions and one of the world's largest concert promoters, on Thursday announced plans to operate a built-from-scratch music venue in the Historic Third Ward, adjacent to the southern end of Maier Festival Park.

Actually, it would be two venues — an 800-person-capacity room and a 4,000-person- capacity room — with two separate entrances, both housed in the same 108,000-square-foot facility. The site is south of the Summerfest administration building, and east of Erie and Jackson streets.

Pending approvals, including from the Historic Third Ward Architectural Review Board and the City of Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners, construction on the yet-to-be-named venue could begin in early 2022 and would open in the second half of 2023. 

Similar deal for the Sylvee in Madison 

The new concert venue would be the latest in Milwaukee's entertainment-building boom. The Milwaukee Bucks' Fiserv Forum, constructed for $524 million, opened in 2018. This year saw the openings of the Bradley Symphony Center, following a $90 million renovation of the Warner Grand Theatre, and the reopening of Summerfest's American Family Insurance Amphitheater after a $51.3 million upgrade.

"Live music has grown exponentially across the country the past 10 years, and in order for Milwaukee to … attract world-class talent, it has to have facilities that are competitive with other cities across the country," Charlie Goldstone, co-president of FPC Live, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

"The number of artists playing the city at an arena and amphitheater-level, and the tickets being sold to those shows, is far greater than it used to be," Goldstone continued. "The next step is for Milwaukee to be able to compete at the midsize level. To have these rooms built from the ground up specifically for concerts, with unmatched amenities, will be a huge value to add to the market." 

The new concert venue would sit on a 1.25-acre parcel of land owned by Milwaukee World Festival Inc., the nonprofit parent company of Summerfest, Frank Productions CEO Joel Plant told the Journal Sentinel. The site is currently a service parking lot.

The land would be developed and owned by Marquee Ventures LLC, a real estate holding company, which in turn would lease the venue to FPC Live. The concert promoter would operate the facility and be in charge of upkeep.

FPC Live struck a similar deal for the Sylvee, the 2,500-person-capacity venue that opened in Madison in 2018.

Eppstein Uhen Architects, the go-to firm for Milwaukee World Festival's venue projects, is behind the design. Renderings provided to the Journal Sentinel are conceptual, but Goldstone said the building would include rooftop decks with views of the Hoan Bridge and Lake Michigan; optimal sight lines of the stages and sharp acoustics throughout each corner of the venues; and ample concourse space to minimize bar and bathroom lines.

The 4,000-person-capacity room would be a hybrid ballroom/theater layout, with reserved seats in the balcony, while the smaller room would accommodate general-admission concerts, Goldstone said. The facility also would be rented out for corporate events and weddings, and would include multiple lounges and suites — a rare feature for a midsize venue — to accommodate the growing desire for premium offerings from touring artists, like meet-and-greets. 

Plant wouldn't disclose what the price tag might be for construction, only saying it's a substantial amount. They are in deep discussions with a construction company, he said, declining to name the firm. 

No city dollars would be used for the project, Plant stressed, nor any money from the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. The $16.25 billion program allocated funds to entertainment-oriented businesses like concert halls, independent movie theaters and promoters, who were unable to operate when the pandemic began. FPC Live received a $10 million grant.

"The SVOG is having no impact on our desire or ability to move the project forward," Plant said. "We are not building or owning the venue. The grant money we received is being used under the operating guidelines of the program, primarily for payroll, benefits for our employees and rent being paid to our landlords."

FPC Live leadership was pondering a Milwaukee venue long before the pandemic hit, first contemplating the idea in 2017 while the Sylvee was under construction, said Scott Leslie, co-president of FPC Live. 

The company began exploring the possibility in earnest in 2019, and began talks with Milwaukee World Festival about constructing the venue on their property in late 2020, Leslie said.

"There were a lot of really attractive sites to do this project, but the lakefront ended up being the spot for a number of reasons, the main one being that Milwaukee concertgoers have been going to the lake for decades to see the biggest artists in the world," Goldstone said, referencing Summerfest, held at Maier Festival Park on the lakefront since 1970. 

"This is a natural extension of that rich history that already exists down there," Goldstone said. "And the Third Ward is an amazing place to be, with direct access to bars and restaurants and easy access to the highway. It checked all the boxes."

A new Milwaukee venue also extends Frank Productions' plan to expand its footprint in its home state. 

"Part of our message to the industry … is that artists needed to spend more than one night when they visit the state of Wisconsin," Goldstone said. "They should be playing Milwaukee and playing Madison, not one or the other." 

Established by Herb Frank in 1965, the company started making bolder moves in Madison in 2017, from breaking ground on the Sylvee and acquiring the High Noon Saloon to merging with Majestic Live, operator of the Majestic Theatre.

Then in early 2018, Frank sold a controlling stake of the company to Live Nation, the world's largest concert promoter, remaining an independently operated company and starting up its FPC Live division. The number of tickets sold by Frank, through FPC Live, jumped 27% from the year prior, according to concert trade publication Pollstar.

In 2019, FPC Live ticket sales jumped another 50%, collectively grossing $99.2 million, according to Pollstar, making it the 14th-largest concert promoter in the world.

That same year, FPC Live was the dominant promoter for Fiserv Forum, handling Live Nation tour stops there. The Bucks arena hosted 32 concerts in 2019, more than any Milwaukee arena had ever had in a single year. 

FPC Live also struck a deal in 2019 with Milwaukee World Festival to book shows at the amphitheater and 5,000-seat BMO Harris Pavilion at Maier Festival Park, outside of Summerfest. 

This year — the first year the deal went into effect because of the COVID-19 pandemic — the remodeled amphitheater hosted 18 concerts. That's the most events in a single season since 2004, back when the now 34-year-old venue was known as the Marcus Amphitheater. 

"As we've been paying attention around the Midwest, Milwaukee has always been on top of the list," Leslie told the Journal Sentinel. "Milwaukee has shown that when an investment is made in a facility that the talent will follow, and we've seen it both with Fiserv Forum and the American Family Insurance Amphitheater."

Business still isn't back to normal

But in March 2020, all the talent stayed home, after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting an unprecedented shutdown of the live music industry. Thanks to the vaccine rollout, venues in Milwaukee began hosting shows again this July. 

But business isn't back to normal.

Despite some sold-out concerts this year, Billboard has reported record levels of ticket holders not showing up for shows. Tour stops in Milwaukee and elsewhere continue to be canceled or postponed at higher-than-usual levels due to positive COVID-19 cases, and likely in some cases, low ticket sales. Summerfest, delayed to this September after canceling in 2020, reported its lowest attendance since at least 1986. 

Rising COVID cases due to the more contagious delta variant were a likely cause for lower turnouts and sales — as was, for some consumers, a growing number of shows requiring protocols like vaccine mandates or masks.  

But Goldstone echoes the concert industry's optimism for blockbuster business in 2022 due to pent-up demand.

"We believe it will be just as good as it was pre-pandemic, and probably much bigger and better," Goldstone said. "The growth we have seen over the last 10 years is a start of what the live music industry is capable of. It's why we feel this is a good investment."

Box-office grosses for the top 100 grossing tours in the world amassed $5.5 billion in 2019, according to Pollstar, a 72% leap from 2010, with the average ticket price for those shows also increasing by 36.7% in that same time frame.

Nevertheless, should FPC Live's venue open its doors in 2023, it will be facing strong competition from well-established venue operators in Milwaukee, including the Pabst Theater Group and its four venues — from the 300-person-capacity Back Room at Colectivo Coffee to the 2,500-seat Riverside Theater — and The Rave, which frequently has hosted multiple concerts in its different-sized rooms in a single night, and as many as 3,500 people inside its largest venue, the Eagles Ballroom. 

But Goldstone argued there will be plenty of business to go around.

"When we opened the Sylvee, there were a lot of the same questions and same concerns from venues in town, and (Madison) is much smaller," Goldstone said. "Here we are in 2021, and every building that was open prior to the Sylvee is still open and still in business, even with the pandemic. We feel this is an addition, not a replacement."

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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