By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Less than a mile from the hole in the ground where Texas Stadium once proudly stood, a plot of land has been set aside for an entertainment complex that could drastically change the Dallas-Fort Worth music market, affecting everyone from local bands to major touring acts. The controversial complex, known as the Irving Entertainment Center, comes with a $250 million price tag—$200 million of which would be paid for with city municipal bonds.
It's no wonder, then, that the venue has come under such scrutiny in recent weeks—even as it remains a proposal.
Whether it gets past that stage will be determined at the polls on Saturday when Irving residents turn up to vote in their city's mayoral race. That's because, for two of the four mayoral candidates in the election, the incumbent Herbert Gears and former mayor Joe Putnam, the proposed entertainment center has become the top hot-button issue of the election.
Gears sees the project as an exciting opportunity for Irving. Putnam, meanwhile, believes it could hurt the city's residents.
Gears' point is an easy one to make: The current proposal for the Irving Entertainment Center includes 11 restaurants, a luxury hotel and, perhaps most pertinent, a state-of-the-art concert hall with a 7,000-person capacity.
The concept for the complex was conceived by area business mogul Billy Bob Barnett, president of Texas Hospitality Group, which is slated to handle all of the entertainment center's concessions. To develop the project, Barnett created Las Colinas Group LP, which has partnered with the City of Irving and contracted the live entertainment company Live Nation to book shows to the new venue. Mayor Gears, who has received $93,000 in campaign donations from Barnett and others directly involved in the Irving Entertainment Center, has become the face of the project, and, in turn, he's made the push for the complex the centerpiece of his re-election campaign.
Having such a complex, he says, fills a major void in the city following the demolition of Texas Stadium in 2010.
"The City of Irving's been in the entertainment business for over 40 years," Gears says. "Unfortunately, we recently blew up our entertainment venue. Irving deserves an entertainment destination."
Just as Texas Stadium helped revolutionize the National Football League, Gears says Irving is ready for a complex that will change the live entertainment industry. And, according to him, the music hall, the entertainment center's main attraction, could potentially pave the way for a similar industry sea change.
He's got a point there: The venue's state-of-the-art design, which includes a ceiling that raises and lowers according to event attendance, allows for multiple room configurations, making the venue feel full with as few as 3,000 attendees. And, he says, because the facility's profits will be made from concessions, all tickets for concerts and events will be offered at a low price.
Putnam, the project's biggest political opponent, has been opposed to the building of the Irving Entertainment Center since long before he announced his plan to run for mayor. His stance is based mostly on his opposition to alcohol sales: In September 2010, a group led by Putnam along with attorney Jim Harris of Thompson & Knight LLP called Irving Taxpayers Opposed to Illegal and Wasteful Use of Tax Money filed a suit in a Dallas court to stop the project from moving forward. They claimed that, in October 2009, Irving City Council exempted the Irving Entertainment Center from a city alcohol ordinance that states that, in order for a restaurant or bar to sell alcohol to be consumed on premises, 60 percent of its sales must be from food.
"Other restaurants—and I've talked to them—say they're not going to sit still if [Barnett's] out there with bars selling unlimited amounts of alcohol in his facilities," Putnam says. "The city would get sued, and I think we would lose our ordinance."
Losing the ordinance, he claims on his campaign website, "is sure to result in increased public intoxication and intoxicated drivers."
Here's where things get really interesting, though: Footing the bill for all of Putnam's legal fees in his lawsuit to stop the building of the facility is AEG Live, Live Nation's main rival in the national talent-buying market. The company also operates Grand Prairie's Verizon Theatre and the Palladium Ballroom in Dallas, both of which are within 17 miles of the Irving Entertainment Center's proposed location. Immediately, the new Irving complex would compete with these venues for shows and attendees.
But perhaps not by as much as the Irving Entertainment Center's backers would have people believe. In the 2010 lawsuit, one of the most notable challenges made by Putnam and the entertainment center's opposition is the original feasibility study commissioned by the City of Irving. In the city's study, independent contractor Michael Soll of the Florida-based The Innovation Group conducted two months of research using information from concert data provider Pollstar and other sources to project how much business the facility could potentially attract in its first two years. His results projected a total of 896,000 attendees in the first year alone—a number that seemed excessive to Putnam and AEG, who in turn commissioned a counter-study led by Dan Houston of the Austin-based company Civic Economics.