CINCINNATI -- Will Cincinnati music lovers get the chance to watch their favorite artists perform against the backdrop of the Ohio River?
The debate over who will build a concert venue at The Banks is intensifying as the project’s biggest investor and the city’s mayor are calling for a venue that hosts both outdoor and indoor concerts.
The Joint Banks Steering Committee, a city- and county-appointed public body that guides decision-making on the project, is considering three bids for a new concert venue on the publicly owned riverfront development.
That committee will recommend one of those bids to the Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County Commission, which both will have the final say over who builds a long-awaited venue that is expected to draw several hundred thousand concertgoers each year.
Multiple sources, however, confirm to WCPO that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s plan to build an indoor-only concert venue has emerged as the frontrunner. The CSO runs several local concert venues, including Riverbend in Anderson Township.
Two other companies – PromoWest and Live Nation – have submitted bids to construct a facility that will accommodate both indoor and outdoor concerts.
Mayor John Cranley said outdoor concerts are a must for The Banks, which has shuttered restaurants and struggled to attract new businesses over the years.
“If it’s an indoor-only facility, you can put it anywhere in the city,” Cranley said. “The advantage of putting it on the river, is taking advantage of the river. Just like it’s nice to look at the river when I’m at a Reds game and it’s nice to look at the river when I’m at a Bengals game.”
The Banks’ largest investor agrees with Cranley.
In a letter sent April 19 to Cincinnati City Council, Nashville-based Mark Nicol of Nicol Investment Company described an indoor-only concert venue at The Banks as "outdated."
“Successful, modern, forward-thinking venues embrace the environment outside their confines,” Nicol wrote. “The enclosed ‘fortress’ features of outdated structures like U.S. Bank Arena and the Freedom Center show how isolated and ineffective such venues tend to be when situated in a live-work-play environment."
A spokesman for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra declined comment out of “respect for the ongoing process” and deferred questions to The Banks Steering Committee.
Meanwhile, the public has no idea where the Joint Banks Steering Committee stands on the concert venue debate because the group met in secret Wednesday to discuss their preference for a concert venue developer.
The committee invited proposals for the site in January, after four years of behind-the-scenes discussions that followed Columbus-based PromoWest’s offer to build and privately finance a $17 million concert venue on the Cincinnati riverfront.
In addition to bids from PromoWest and the CSO, the nation’s largest concert promoter, Live Nation, has also asked to build a $66 million concert venue on the city’s riverfront.
But Live Nation has asked the city and county to kick in $37 million in public funding according to Cranley.
And Cranley is opposed to that public subsidy.
“I’m not trying to pick a particular vendor, I am saying there is one that’s indoor/outdoor, that doesn’t ask for a public subsidy,” Cranley said.
The county has offered to pay for a parking garage for the new concert venue, but any ask for public money beyond that is likely to get a chilly reception from public leaders.
The CSO and PromoWest haven’t asked for public money to build the venue.
But Nicol, The Banks investor, said he worries about tax revenue if the CSO is selected to build the concert venue.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a nonprofit – meaning the organization will not have to pay property taxes to public schools and the county on the concert venue. The city would also miss out on ticket taxes worth several hundred thousand dollars a year because of its nonprofit status.
County property records show no property taxes are paid on the Riverbend site.
“If there is no new property tax or sales tax revenue generated from this venture, at a minimum, it should be explained how the future phases of the Banks requiring public funding will be subsidized,” Nicol wrote. “The public should be informed about the opportunity costs of selecting a nonprofit entity.”
That lost tax revenue is also a factor that sways Cranley against CSO’s bid, he said.
PromoWest and Live Nation have planned concert venues that will host more than 5,000 people.
LiveNation’s facility would seat 6,000, and draw 360,000 attendees yearly that could yield $720,000 in annual parking revenue, Nicol wrote.
And PromoWest’s venue would seat 5,500, attract 300,000 and yield $600,000 in parking revenue, Nicol wrote.
But the CSO’s venue would draw substantially fewer concert attendees – 225,000 a year, bringing in just $450,000 in parking revenue, Nicol wrote.
“Both the retail and the hotel will be directly impacted by this significant differential in attendance,” Nicol wrote. “It would also be remiss to not focus on the loss of parking revenue with lower attendance numbers.”
The county has requested $2 million in state funding to build a parking garage to support the new venue. Once it's built, that parking revenue would go back to the county.
Scott Stienecker, CEO of PromoWest, was thrilled to hear Cranley wants an indoor and outdoor facility. He has been trying to build a concert venue here for nearly five years, similar to his existing facilities in Columbus and Pittsburgh.
“The mayor’s endorsement is awesome, and I hope we get the bid to build at The Banks,” Stienecker said. “But if we don’t get the bid, we are considering two other sites in Cincinnati.”
The Banks Steering Committee could recommend a concert developer as early as next week.
City and county leaders agree that a concert venue is needed to help draw crowds to The Banks during winter months, when the Reds and the Bengals are not playing.
The venue, which would host events multiple times a week, would also be a crucial way to bring in foot traffic during weekdays.
But since the idea first became public nearly three years ago, the committee has moved slowly to advance the idea and pick a concert developer.
The process has also been shrouded in secrecy.
The Banks Steering Committee last met on Jan. 23. Before then, it had only met twice in the public eye since 2015.
WCPO first reported that the committee had not met for more than two years and unearthed, unbeknownst to the public, that the developer in charge of The Banks had missed key deadlines – twice – to start a new phase of the project.
The committee met in secret Wednesday to discuss a concert venue on the riverfront.
The group also has to pick a new master developer for The Banks -- a project that taxpayers own and have spent more than $135 million to build.
Read more about each concert proposal below:
Bidder: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/MEMI
Construction cost: $19.25 million
Financing: CSO to own venue and does not have financial partner. CSO will plan, develop and operate the venue. No public funding ask.
Visitors: 225,000 per year
Events: 150 per year
- Indoor venue with two balconies.
- Flexible design to accommodate large or small groups.
- Large indoor/outdoor terrace overlooking Ohio River.
Tax revenue/community benefits
- No admission tax or property tax paid due to nonprofit status.
- A temporary seasonal stage to be built adjacent to venue will be managed by MEMI free of charge for a community events series.
- 100 percent of net revenue from project stays in Cincinnati region to support artistic and educational missions.
Events: Live music will be priority but the facility also be used for corporate meetings, parties, lectures or civic events.
Construction time: Not provided
Other information: 12 letters of support attached to bid from community organizations such as Childrens’ Theatre, the Cincinnati Museum Center and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, as well as prominent citizens such as Craig Lindner and Otto Budig.
Bidder: Live Nation and ARK Group
Headquarters: Beverly Hills, California
Venue cost: $66 million
Financing: Private funding plus $37 million request for public funding, according to Cranley.
Visitors drawn: 360,000 per year
Events hosted: 152 per year
- Indoor/outdoor venue with a moveable wall that allows for up to 6,000 people to attend an event
- Seated upper pavilion, lawn can be turned into multiple sizes
- Indoor seating for up to 3,600 and outdoor for up to 3,000.
Tax revenue/community benefits
- Will generate $300,000 per city’s admission tax.
- Payroll taxes, city income taxes, property taxes, to be determined
Events: In addition to concerts, will host corporate events, weddings, beer-tasting events and film shoots.
Construction time: 30 months
Bidder: PromoWest Productions
Headquarters: Columbus, Ohio
Construction cost: $15 million
Financing: $3.9 million in equity from developers, along with $13 million in debt from First Financial Bank. No public funding ask.
Visitors: 300,000 to 350,000 per year
Events: 180 per year
- Indoor/outdoor venue with reversible stage
- Oversized airport hangar door allows facility to convert from indoor venue to outdoor.
- Multi-story venue with raised plazas, fixed terrace seating, and lawn seating
- Indoor seating for up to 2,500, with lawn area for an unspecified number.
Tax revenue/benefits to community:
- .50 cents per paid ticket to the Joint Banks Steering Committee Marketing Fund up to $150,000 a year.
- Amusement taxes - $200,000 (3 percent on ticket sales by city) a year.
- Payroll taxes, city income taxes, property taxes, to be determined
Events: Concerts will focus on artists that appeal to young professionals. Cross-promoting events with sporting teams and events – the Bengals and the Reds, Taste of Cincinnati, Riverfest. On football game days, hosting huge tailgate parties with local bands. Venue also used for corporate and community events.
Construction time: 10 months
Editor’s note: WCPO does not ordinarily use anonymous sources. However, WCPO staff members use anonymous sources in rare circumstances where such sources are the only way to obtain information vital to the public good. WCPO staff members have vetted these sources and believe the information they provide to be accurate and in good faith.