The Music Angle in Irving's Mayoral Race

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.

The difference between the two studies' projections are staggering: According to Houston's study, which solely used attendance figures from area venues Verizon Theatre and Gexa Energy Pavilion over the course of 2008 and 2009, the figures found in the original city-commissioned research were exaggerated by as much 400 percent.

The Innovation Group and The Las Colinas Group have responded to Houston's assertion, saying that there was a misinterpretation of the data taken from Pollstar, and that their figures have since been revised. They further claim that their projections do not rely heavily on that data.

"Any single venue you're looking at would be, in our opinion, an inappropriate comparison," Soll says, defending his initial study. "You would have to actually look at a hybrid. You have to take certain venues and add their capacity together, or else it would make no sense to you at all."

Still, the numbers in Soll's feasibility study do seem a tad overzealous. To even approach those numbers, the proposed venue would have to host 220 events per year, and average 4,000 attendees at each of these events.

AEG isn't alone in doubting these numbers, either. Kris Youmans, one of the region's top independent booking agents, says he isn't buying them: "Adding a fourth multi-thousand-seat venue is ambitious for this area," he says. "You probably couldn't even get those numbers in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago."

However, everyone in Barnett's camp, including Michael Soll, claims that, because of this revolutionary new business model, the numbers are highly attainable. By booking a wide variety of events, Barnett and Live Nation say their venue will attract locals and tourists alike. And, with the newly completed Irving Convention Center sitting right next door, Barnett says the entertainment complex could help boost the number of conventions that Irving attracts.

"What we'd like best is one-third local, one-third convention and one-third tourism," he says of the crowds he wants to attract to the complex.

But as Barnett and The Las Colinas Group fight to get their project off the ground, the question looms: Does Dallas really need another music venue of this size? Let's face it: Adding a new venue to the region will not increase the amount of talent in the area. Nor will it guarantee more acts touring through the region.

In defense of the venue, Barnett suggests that the entertainment complex will be such a different beast from what Dallas has ever seen that it will indeed hit its lofty, expected figures. And, he maintains, it will be set up to complement the rest of the region's offerings—the lone exception, he admits, being the venue's would-be direct competitor, Grand Prairie's Verizon Theatre.

Incumbent candidate Gears, on the other hand, isn't so modest when speaking about the music hall in Irving's neighboring city. In fact, he sees the Irving Entertainment Center as a potential death-knell for the Verizon Theatre. That's kind of his whole angle, actually.

"We're not going to slow down ticket sales in Grand Prairie," he says, rather emphatically. "We're not going to diminish their profits. We're not going to hurt them. They're going to be dead."

Depending on the outcome of Saturday's election, of course.

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Daniel Hopkins
Contact: Daniel Hopkins