Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Battle For Downtown Concert Venues

It’s Live Nation and the Bucks vs. Gary Witt and the Pabst. Which proposal will win?

By - Jun 1st, 2022 01:31 pm
(Top) FPC Live Deer District Concert Venues. Rendering by Eppstein Uhen Architects. (Bottom) Westown Theater. Rendering by Kahler Slater.

(Top) FPC Live Deer District Concert Venues. Rendering by Eppstein Uhen Architects. (Bottom) Westown Theater. Rendering by Kahler Slater.

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.

A new battle quickly commenced, with Pabst Theater Group’s leader Gary Witt announcing a new 3,500-capacity concert venue would be near 6th and Michigan, as Urban Milwaukee reported. The venue would actually be part of a huge complex built by a team that would include a soccer stadium to be developed by Jim Kacmarcik, the CEO of Kapco Metal Stamping, along with a hotel and apartment building.

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.

“In the long run someone’s going to lose,” said Peter Jest, the longtime concert promoter and owner of Shank Hall, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. “There are only so many musical acts you can do.”

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.

But Plant apparently hadn’t anticipated any opposition to the Third Ward plan and soon got cold feet. “The location near Fiserv Forum was always their first choice,” said Ald. Bob Bauman, whose district encompasses both locations considered by FPC Live, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. “But the Bucks weren’t talking to people.”

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 FPC Live/Bucks deal had been expected for some time, as Jeramey Jannene reported for Urban Milwaukee, and Witt was meanwhile cooking up a deal to upstage FPC Live. Notably, it included a hotel, something the Bucks had talked about building. The plan that Witt and his partners announced was splashy but short on specifics. For instance who would pay for building the 3,500 capacity concert venue? And what was its price tag?

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.

Indeed, beyond the war between concert promoters there are also implications here for taxpayers. The original plan by FPC would have allowed it to buy land from Summerfest, which is subsidized by the city (in the form of below-market rent on the adjacent, city-owned festival grounds) and left a non-profit entity helping out a national monopoly like Live Nation to take market share from local concert promoters. Now FPC Live has pivoted to a plan using land that was a public trust, owned by the state entity that ran the old Bradley Center. The state deal to subsidize Fiserv Forum awarded it to the Bucks, if the team paid to demolish the Bradley Center.

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.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

One thought on “Murphy’s Law: The Battle For Downtown Concert Venues”

  1. says:

    “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!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us