As early as next year, Brown County could be the owner of a 2,000-seat performing arts venue — and it’s not the Little Nashville Opry.
For about four months, select public officials have been forming plans to build and finance the Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center.
Where it would be built isn’t final, as no purchase agreement has been signed, but organizers said that could be done this week.
The whole project — not including operating costs — is projected to cost around $10.2 million and be paid off over 30 years.
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At first, it will be paid for with innkeeper’s tax, the 5-percent tax that Brown County visitors have paid on their room and cabin rentals since 1986.
For the past six to eight years, 95 percent of that money has been going to the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau, or CVB, said Barry Herring.
Herring is a member of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Commission, or CVC, a group of appointed volunteers who manage the innkeeper’s tax revenue.
The amount that tax is expected to bring in for 2017 is $852,671, said Jane Ellis, executive director of the CVB.
To build the venue, a bond would be taken out, and about $560,000 of innkeeper’s tax would be diverted to cover the payment the first year.
“It’s going to be technically called a bond, but it’s going to have all the earmarks of a loan. So it will be processed like a loan, but legally and technically it’s going to be a bond,” Herring said.
A three-person redevelopment authority would be appointed by the county commissioners to lease that bond, Herring said.
Redevelopment authorities are in charge of financing and constructing “local public improvements” and leasing them back to a local redevelopment commission, according to Indiana law. There are two such commissions here: the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and the Nashville Redevelopment Commission, both run by volunteers. Without a site for the venue chosen, it’s unclear which might get involved.
Organizers predict the Maple Leaf will be self-sufficient after the first year. After the initial payment from innkeeper’s tax, the vision is for that $560,000 payment to be covered by cash flow from the venue.
The center will not be built with any property tax money, organizers said. The innkeeper’s tax is paid by people who stay at a Brown County hotel, inn or tourist rental as part of their room rate.
“No dollars are coming out of anybody else’s pockets,” CVC President Kevin Ault said.
Ellis said the CVB board hasn’t officially agreed to renegotiate its level of innkeeper’s tax funding. She expects it will be discussed at the next CVB board meeting.
For 2019, the CVB’s budget would be reduced from about $712,500 to $400,000, which means less money spent on advertising Brown County.
“There are a lot of opportunities that are considered like grassroots or guerrilla marketing that don’t cost money,” Ellis said, mentioning social media.
That budget cut is only expected to last a year to a year and a half. It’s projected that the $560,000 will be made up after the venue opens because of increased innkeeper’s tax revenue.
“Let’s say we open this facility in January. The nice thing about it is we get the innkeeper’s tax in February and we give it to the CVB, so (it’s) instantaneously. It’s not like we have to wait a year. Within 30 days, the CVB’s budget starts growing back up,” Herring said.
Organizers expect the venue announcement will also bring free media attention to Brown County.
“We’re expecting a big bump in that as soon as this project starts. By the time that starts tapering off, the CVB will be back to where it needs to be,” CVB board member Bruce Gould said.
Once the CVB is back to its original operating level, conversations will start about where profits from the venue will go. One idea is giving a percentage of the profits to the Brown County Community Foundation.
“We’re looking for public input on what should be done with that after the CVB gets theirs back,” Herring said.
The vision is to have shows booked by a professional management company, such as LiveNation, but who will manage the day-to-day business has not been announced yet. The CVB staff is one possibility, Herring said.
Uses will not be limited to live music performances, either. Other possibilities could include comedians or seminars.
“(The county has) always had a focus on country, but we definitely are not targeting that,” said local architect and musician Doug Harden. “If LiveNation comes in here, we are going to basically accept any act that will put 2,000 butts in seats.”
How it happened
Business owners, local public officials and visitors have been waiting for a new concert venue to be built for more than five years.
The Little Nashville Opry burned at the hands of an arsonist in September 2009, and in April 2012, country radio personality Scott Wayman and family bought the land it sat on.
Early on, Wayman predicted he’d have a new venue open in 2013, but ground has not been broken yet.
After the Opry burned, occupancy at the Brown County Inn and at Hotel Nashville dropped by about half, said Herring, who now owns the Brown County Inn, and Ault, who owns Hotel Nashville and the Seasons Lodge and Conference Center.
About four months ago, Herring was having dinner with his wife when he had an “epiphany moment”: If Brown County needs a concert hall, why not fund it through the innkeeper’s tax?
More tourists means more innkeeper’s tax being paid, which would help pay down the cost of building it, quicker; more tourists also means more money being spent at local shops and restaurants, helping the local economy, he said.
“This one night, every conversation I’d had on all these volunteer board and commissions, it all just made sense in one sitting,” he said.
Herring approached a couple of county officials to see if the idea had any merit. He said he talked to the county’s lawyers at Barnes & Thornburg about financing.
Representatives from every government entity that would be involved in this project were called into a briefing at the Brown County Inn a few months ago and brought up to speed, Herring said. Since then, they’ve been trying to keep the idea quiet until the land purchase was complete.
No land has been bought yet, but word has started to get out.
“The biggest reason it had to happen this way is we needed to prove the concept,” Brown County Redevelopment Commission member Jim Schultz said.
“We didn’t know legally if this could even happen, so before you bring something like this public, it’s always best to vet the legalities. Most of the time of this whole process has been just vetting the legalities of whether or not this would work.”
No votes have been taken among any government board members who knew about this project, Herring said. But he had asked board representatives to take the idea back to their boards and get an informal approval, and everyone supported it, he said.
“Once we have the land, the signature on that document, then the whole public process starts,” he said.
The first step will be a joint CVB/CVC meeting after the site location is finalized. That meeting is expected to happen in the next week or two.
A rollout meeting also will be scheduled for the public to come and learn more about the project.
A ‘gold nugget’
An economic development analysis done for the Opry in 2012 said that reopening that concert hall would bring in more than $10 million to the local economy.
The report says that in its lowest-attended years, attendance was 60,000 per year at Opry shows. If all shows were sellouts, attendance could be 160,000, and if a third show per weekend were added and also sold out, attendance could be 240,000 per year, the report said.
“In one year under the worst, worst, worst-case scenario, this venue pays for itself in terms of economic impact,” Herring said.
The travel research company that produced the report assumed that about 15 percent of guests would stay overnight in Brown County, and estimated they would pay $29 per night for a room — a rate that’s nearly unheard of now.
With today’s numbers, Herring said innkeeper’s tax revenue would be substantially more than that. He predicted occupancy at lodging establishments would probably double with a new concert hall in the county.
Other than the improved revenue all tourist-related establishments are likely to see, Herring said he has no personal stake in this venture. As a career builder and developer of shopping centers, he’s been volunteering his time and expertise.
Herring said the Maple Leaf also wouldn’t offer any food other than snacks or drinks, because they wouldn’t want it to compete with local restaurants. Rather, the vision is for visitors to catch dinner in town before or after they see a show.
The hope behind the project is to drive economic impact in “tens of millions of dollars,” Harden said.
“That’s why it’s being done,” he said. “It’s not like this gold nugget is going to feed everyone; it’s based on economic impact.”
Schultz said the increased tax revenue coming into the county could be a big benefit in other ways, too, such as funding infrastructure improvements and offsetting the county’s property tax losses from having so much tax-exempt land here.
“The spirit is to be to benefit everyone,” Herring said.
“It’s been said for years that tourism is Brown County’s only industry, and this is a huge step in the way of economic development,” Gould said.
The hope is to break ground on the new venue in November, with it opening in late fall 2018 or spring 2019 at the latest, Herring said.
“It’s a huge deal just to organize this locally — because the model has been not to cooperate — and so moving forward this is going to require absolute cooperation,” Schultz said.
First, the CVC and the CVB would have to vote to change the way they’ve been allocating the innkeeper’s tax money.
After that, approval would be needed from the Brown County Council.
Council Vice President Keith Baker attended the initial presentation months ago.
“It sounded extremely well-thought-out. They had the principal folks involved at that time. … They had really done their homework,” he said. “Their business plan looked really good and they had gone out to research into entertainment and how things are going.”
If the project is approved by the council, it would go to the Brown County Commissioners.
Commissioner Diana Biddle also attended the initial presentation. She called the project “a shining star for the community” if it comes to fruition.
“I think it has marvelous potential. I see it as a way of funding a facility that will appeal to the locals, it will attract tourists and it will be paid for by tourists per the innkeeper’s tax,” she said.
The Brown County Redevelopment Commission also would be approached for approval before the county commissioners could appoint the redevelopment authority that would be responsible for leasing the bond.
Depending on where the venue is built, it also may have to go before the Nashville Town Council, and the land may have to be rezoned, requiring it to go before the Area Plan Commission, Herring said.
This isn’t the only concert hall in the works in Brown County.
On May 12, Wayman hung a new sign on his Little Nashville Opry site listing financial institutions, builders and family members involved in his project, and projecting a 2018 opening date.
What if the Opry does come together just as Wayman hopes, and the Maple Leaf does, too?
“In terms of competition with other venues, I think the diversity of the venues is enough to be attractive to different demographics,” Biddle said.
“I welcome him,” Herring said. “We’ll be the first one in, and I’m comfortable we’ll be successful.”
The proposed Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center would have 2,000 seats. The rebuilt Little Nashville Opry is envisioned to have about the same number. How does that compare to other music venues in Indiana?
The Palladium in Carmel: 1,600 concert capacity
Egyptian Room at Old National Centre: 2,000 concert capacity (standing)
Murat Theatre at Old National Centre: 2,515 concert capacity
Indiana University Auditorium: 3,154 seating capacity
Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum: 8,200 concert capacity (seated and standing)
Bankers Life Fieldhouse: 15,000 to 20,000 concert capacity (seated and standing)
Klipsch Music Center: 24,000 concert capacity (seated and standing)
SOURCES: The Indianapolis Star and Indiana University
Tourism leaders plan to have a “rollout meeting” to fully explain the proposed Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center next Tuesday, June 20, at the Brown County Playhouse. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. with the presentation starting at 7 p.m. This meeting is open to the public.