It seems there could be mixed reviews on recent news of a new music venue complex coming to town.
Last week, Madison-based promoter and venue operator FPC Live announced plans to develop a two-venue facility on a surface lot west of the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. The project's two venues -- one with a scalable capacity of up to 800 people and the other with a scalable capacity of up to 4,000 -- will host concerts and events year-round.
FPC will lease the site, south of the Summerfest administration building, from Summerfest's operator Milwaukee World Festival Inc. The project builds off the nonprofit's 2019 agreement with FPC Live parent company Frank Productions Concerts to promote concerts at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater and BMO Harris Pavilion on non-Summerfest days.
While the project is being touted by FPC and Summerfest as a way to elevate Milwaukee's profile as a regional destination for music and live entertainment, other leaders of the local industry have largely remained quiet in the wake of the announcement, and it begs the question of whether the project could hurt existing entertainment venues in the city. The Pabst Theater Group, one the city's largest venue operators, declined to speak to BizTimes for this story. Three of PTG's four venues would compete in size with FPC's new facility: The Pabst Theater, with 1,339 seating capacity; The Riverside Theater, with 2,480 seating capacity; and Turner Hall Ballroom with a nearly 1,000 standing capacity.
The owners of The Rave/Eagle's Club, which includes the 800-capacity Eagles Hall, 1,800-capacity Rave Hall and 3,500-capacity Eagles Ballroom, did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
The Wisconsin Center District, which has the 4,000-seat Miller High Life Theater, issued the following statement from CEO Marty Brooks: "The Miller High Life Theatre and FPC Live have partnered together for years to bring great shows to Milwaukee. Our focus as a local events and entertainment venue operator is to continue delivering unforgettable, not-to-be-missed experiences to the city we love."
One operator didn't hesitate to share his opposition to the project.
"It's certainly not needed," said Peter Jest, owner of Shank Hall on Milwaukee's East Side. "For Milwaukee’s size, there’s certainly enough concert venues, from the Miller High Life to the Eagles Ballroom, to The Riverside to the Marcus Center. There’s so many and we're not filled every night so it's not like we really need this, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
While FPC's new venues wouldn't directly compete with the 300-capacity Shank Hall, Jest still sees the company's expanded presence as a threat to the livelihood of smaller, locally owned venues. Frank Productions is part owned by Beverly Hills-based Live Nation, which is considered to be the world's leading live entertainment company. FPC Live, with Live Nation, produces nearly 550 events annually in Wisconsin.
Jest said it's disappointing to see Summerfest strengthen its ties with an outside operator over a local entity.
What's more, Jest doesn't buy the argument that Milwaukee is often overlooked by touring artists.
"What big-name shows is Milwaukee missing out on? We're not missing out on anything," he said. "We have Fiserv Forum and the (UW-Milwaukee) Panther Arena. People know where Milwaukee is."
But Tarkik Moody, who is director of digital strategy and innovation at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, disagrees. He said FPC's new venues cover the "sweet spot" of 800- to- 4,000-person capacity that Milwaukee currently lacks and many artists favor.
"We have the small venues that go 400 and below and we have the big venues that go 1,000 and up," said Moody. "The 800-4,000 range allows for a lot of opportunities to bring different variety of acts that don't normally come to Milwaukee, or because of the stage set up, it doesn't make it logical for that artist to play here."
Anecdotally, he knows of many Milwaukee-area residents, including himself, that for years have had to travel to other cities to see certain artists they follow.
"A lot of population in the city is not getting served by (existing) venues when it comes to entertainment," he said. "Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis serves those audiences. Milwaukee doesn't do a good job serving those different types of audiences. I'll be frank: it's the Black and brown audiences, especially younger ones."
He's hopeful that FPC's proposed venue, especially considering the promoter's track record operating The Sylvee in Madison, will appeal to underserved groups and keep local music lovers in Milwaukee -- and spending their money in Milwaukee rather than on transportation to and hotel rooms in other cities.
In a news release, FPC's proposed project was described as one that would "further crystalize the Third Ward as a live music and entertainment hub for the region." Don Smiley, president & CEO of Milwaukee World Festival said the new venues will increase access to live entertainment and "extend" the experience concert goers have become familiar with, having visited Milwaukee's lakefront to see shows. Charlie Goldstone, president of FPC Live, said the venues will elevate Milwaukee as a "must-play destination for all artists both at the developing level and those on the verge of playing arenas, amphitheaters, and stadiums."