The Battle For Downtown Concert Venues
It’s Live Nation and the Bucks vs. Gary Witt and the Pabst. Which proposal will win?
The first battle for a new concert venue in town is over and Live Nation lost. The national near monopoly musical chain, working with its affiliate FPC Live (run by Frank Productions), backed a plan to build two new concert facilities in the Third Ward on land owned by Milwaukee World Festival, the parent organization of Summerfest, back in December.
That generated lots of opposition, from local concert promoters like the Rave and the Pabst Theater Group, along with condo owners and other residents of the Third Ward. And on May 13, FPC Live announced it was backing off from the deal.
But the timing of the announcement, just days before FPC Live was expected to announce it would build its new concert venues in Downtown, suggested Witt was attempting to upstage his competitor. And sure enough, just three days later FPC Live and the Milwaukee Bucks announced they would partner on two concert venues with 800- and 4,000-person capacities, as Urban Milwaukee reported. They would be built on land owned by the Bucks near 4th and State and next to Fiserv Forum — and just six blocks away from the facility Witt is planning.
FPC Live/Franks Production CEO Joel Plant made it crystal clear how he viewed this competition: “We have the best location, the best project, the best team and the best partners,” he declared. That’s four bests, if you’re counting.
Both proposals will also compete with The Rave, which has two facilities, with a capacity of 3,500 and 1,800 and is located just 18 blocks from Witt’s proposed facility.
Back when FPC Live was planning its Third Ward venues, the company claimed it wouldn’t put anyone out of business, but would simply increase the number of concerts coming to Milwaukee. But when asked by Urban Milwaukee to name three examples of notable bands that haven’t played Milwaukee, Plant could come up with only one, Sylvan Esso, a group that played two sold-out nights at the Pabst in 2018 and played the Pabst earlier in 2014 as part of a tour for its debut album. The group has a long history in Milwaukee, as its two members actually met at another Milwaukee venue, the Cactus Club.
Plant and other company representatives had met with Leslie West, co-owner of The Rave in January 2020 and offered to buy her facilities and threatened to put her out of business if she declined. (Plant confirmed the meeting but denied the threat.) As West recalled, Plant said their plan was to eventually build new facilities at 4th and State and then tear down The Rave and its second facility, the Eagles Club Ballroom.
West turned them down and sure enough, Plant and Frank Productions moved to open facilities to compete with her, but chose Summerfest’s land in the Third Ward instead of 4th and State. Why? Perhaps because the Bucks were still thinking of building a hotel on the land and hadn’t decided their plans. Also, Summerfest had gotten very close to FPC Live by then, announcing in October 2019 it had cut a deal that made FPC Live its preferred promoter for any concerts booked at its amphitheater or the BMO Harris Pavilion.
Actually the Bucks were doing some talking: to Gary Witt. Witt had spent years building a concert empire in Milwaukee, starting with the Pabst Theater and then adding the management of the Riverside, Turner Hall and concerts at the backroom of Colectivo on Prospect. He had also booked some 70 shows in years past at BMO Harris and was effectively losing this option given the Summerfest/FPC Live partnership. Moreover the proposed Third Ward venues were a direct threat to his Turner Hall concerts.
So Witt went on the offensive, joining forces with West to fight the Third Ward proposal. He also cut a deal with the Wisconsin Center to take over management of the Miller High Life Theatre, the redeveloped auditorium building on 6th and Kilbourn. This was “about competing with FPC Live,” said Jest, to prevent FPC and Live Nation from using that facility to build a base in Milwaukee. “Live Nation wants to come into Milwaukee and grab most of the market like it has in other cities.”
Meanwhile, Witt was also talking with the Bucks about creating a series of outdoor concerts at the 4th and State land, music industry insiders say. The plan would have built a stadium-sized stage and permanent restrooms, sources said. Bauman confirmed that Witt worked on this plan, while Witt denied this in an interview with Urban Milwaukee and then claimed his plan was to do concerts on the Deer District land. But nothing came of the proposal because the Bucks ultimately decided to partner with FPC Live.
The plan also left Witt building a facility that was in direct competition with The Rave. West declined to comment on her relationship with Witt, but it has clearly complicated what was a joint effort to head off FPC Live and leaves her facing two different plans that threaten to put her out of business. Which of the three promoters is the likely winner?
“Live Nation can stick it out the longest,” Jest predicted “They have the deeper pockets.”
But Witt may be working to deepen his pockets. He has promised “a premier concert promoter” would help run his proposed concert venue. Insiders speculate that the likely choice is AEG Presents, which ranks second (though well behind) Live Nation in the national concert business. Witt declined to name the potential partner.
While West is the most threatened, Witt conceded that the FPC Live venues would be a threat to him, competing with Turner Hall. “Turner Hall will go out of business,” a music industry insider predicted.
Witt also claims Miller High Life Theatre will be threatened, suggesting this could impact a tax-supported entity. “What does this do to the Wisconsin Center’s ability to make money?” he asks. The Wisconsin Center, which also runs the convention center and is funded by the hotel and car rental tax, can’t afford to see Miller High Life turn into a white elephant.
That created two square blocks of empty land in the middle of Downtown with considerable value. The proposed concert venues would take up no more than half a square block of land, leaving plenty of space to build a hotel, and perhaps other development, Bauman noted. It’s all part of a complicated package of taxpayer support for the Bucks.
Then there is the proposal by Kacmarcik to build a soccer stadium. Rarely have these been built in the U.S. without some public subsidy. Will that be requested? “As to whether there will be a request for a TIF (tax incremental financing) or something else, we don’t know that yet,” Bauman said.
Bauman said the FPC Live/Bucks plan would require a minor change in zoning but he expects it to win support. “I would be very surprised if it didn’t have broad acceptance.” Which at this point, seems to leave FPC Live in the lead.
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More about the FPC Live venues
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Unanimously Approves Deer District Concert Venues - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 1st, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Deer District Concert Halls Okayed Again - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 25th, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Bucks Building Street Through Bradley Center Site - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 20th, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Deer District Concert Venue Wins First Approval, Despite Objections - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 26th, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: FPC Files For Design Approval For Deer District Concert Complex - Jeramey Jannene - Aug 25th, 2022
- Murphy’s Law: The Battle For Downtown Concert Venues - Bruce Murphy - Jun 1st, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Bucks, FPC Plan Downtown Concert Venue - Jeramey Jannene - May 23rd, 2022
- No New Third Ward Concert Venue - Jeramey Jannene - May 13th, 2022
- Pabst Theater Group Adds Fifth Venue - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 28th, 2022
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Third Ward Zoning Change On Hold - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 8th, 2022
Read more about FPC Live venues here
Political Contributions Tracker
Displaying political contributions between people mentioned in this story. Learn more.
- November 15, 2015 - Robert Bauman received $50 from Gary Witt
- February 17, 2015 - Robert Bauman received $100 from Gary Witt
- October 15, 2014 - Robert Bauman received $100 from Gary Witt
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One thought on “Murphy’s Law: The Battle For Downtown Concert Venues”
“When elephants dance, the mice get trampled”. We, the tax-payers, are the mice. No public subsidies for private entertainment projects! Plutocrats, pay for your own cake!