A new Brown County trend: Concert center finds instant profitability, gives art colony economic lift

NASHVILLE — Brown County has developed its brand as an artist colony and must-visit tourism stop by doing what comes naturally — giving artists a place to create, display and sell their work and by filling shelves of local stores with items that appeal to shoppers.

Its backdrop is Brown County State Park, a natural gem that proves to be irresistible — especially during fall color tours.

But when autumn turns to winter, Brown County tourism business falls much like the park’s brilliant red, orange and yellow leaves. Some shop owners even close up during January and February, awaiting a steady flow of customers to return during spring break.

The six-month-old Brown County Music Center is changing that trend, with local cash registers at hospitality businesses ringing at a faster pace even during the so-called slow season. Top-line national entertainers are drawing out-of-town visitors year-round.

[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]

Jeff and Sharon Loveless of Petersburg attended two of the first 32 concerts at the music center — and have tickets to a third show.

Jeff, a water treatment plant operator, and Sharon, a school teacher, first experienced the music center from the front rail of the lower bowl when they saw Indiana classic rocker Henry Lee Summer on Sept. 6 in one of the center’s earliest shows.

They returned Feb. 12 for soft-rock crooner Richard Marx, this time two rows closer, seated in the center section of the three-row orchestra pit right in front of the stage.

Jeff Loveless rated the Brown County Music Center as “one of the best places we’ve ever been in.”

The Lovelesses represent the type of customers that music center officials are working to attract.

When in Nashville for the Marx concert, they stayed two nights at the nearby Abe Martin Lodge in the state park.

Besides paying for the price of tickets and lodging, out-of-town concert guests spend money in Nashville restaurants, night spots and shops — multiplying the economic impact of their visit.

“My business is tremendously better,” said Barry Herring, who owns the Brown County Inn, its Harvest Dining Room restaurant and Corn Crib bar with his wife Deborah.

Other Nashville hospitality operators are saying the same thing, said Herring, co-president of the seven-member Maple Leaf Management Group that oversees the center’s operations.

A new concept

The concept for building and operating the music center without raising local taxes was Herring’s, pitched to an audience of local movers and shakers in 2017.

In 99 percent of municipal building projects, taxpayer-supported bonds are issued as the primary financing vehicle, said Herring, who learned that only one other Indiana community has taken a similar route to pay for construction.

Locally, county commissioners created the Brown County Maple Leaf Building Corp., a three-member board established solely to hold the center’s $12.5 million mortgage. The center is governed like a county owned entity, but is not one — yet. When the mortgage is fully paid off, ownership will be transferred to the county commissioners, Herring said.

Collections from the county’s 5 percent innkeepers tax on overnight lodging guarantees payment of the center’s monthly mortgage, should such a safety net be necessary. So far, it hasn’t been needed. The center has been able use event receipts to cover its monthly mortgage and all operating costs, including wages for four full-time employees and 22 part-time workers — and make a profit on top of that, Herring said.

“We’ve got $1 million in the bank,” he said during a public meeting last week.

Without increases in income taxes or property taxes, the upstart music center has created a healthy new revenue stream across Brown County, which has a population of about 15,000.

Tax-increase fears under traditional funding assumptions have killed suggestions for similar venues in larger areas such as Columbus that desire performing art centers.

But optimism prevails regarding the Nashville blueprint, which was a long time coming. Since the Little Nashville Opry was leveled in a 2009 arson, local folks have been dreaming about its replacement.

That center — about a mile from the new one — brought country music entertainers such as Johnny Cash, Blake Shelton and Trisha Yearwood and a steady flow of visitors to Nashville. Its closing left a void that the Brown County Playhouse, a downtown Nashville concert venue with seating for about 400, isn’t big enough to fill, Herring said.

The new music center holds 2,017 patrons, and needs at least 700 ticket sales per event to profitably put on a show, he said.

Within about two months of the Opry fire a decade ago, project manager Doug Harden of Miller Architects in Nashville began designs on his own for a replacement venue.

The new sandstone-veneer building — which opened with a sold-out Aug. 24 show by two-time Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Vince Gill — is essentially the same blueprint that Harden imagined a decade earlier, he said.

Step inside and you will find familiar Brown County surroundings.

Heavy timber trusses, laminated rafters and beams, tongue-and-groove decking on the ceiling and 14-feet columns were all cut from fir trees, Harden said.

“It’s the same kind of timber at the Abe Martin Lodge and the new (Brown County) History Center,” he said.

Clerestory windows — 12 on each side of the lobby — allow in natural light, adding to the ambiance of artwork on display inside the music center.

The theater itself is more stadium-like, built for function, featuring wide aisles and comfortable seats, said Harden, a moonlighting mandolin player who has performed in his share of music venues.

“He did an amazing job,” Herring said of Harden’s design.

Attracting ticket-buyers

Through its first five months, the music center hosted 57,732 patrons. Organizers built a business plan based on attracting a minimum of 60,000 ticket-buyers — equal to a poor year’s attendance at the old Little Nashville Opry — in the new center’s first 12 months.

That means the new center is on pace to double original ticket-sales projections.

Seventeen shows have sold out, including the upcoming April 28 concert starring country legend Willie Nelson, executive director Christian Webb said.

Interest was so high that tickets for the Gill and Nelson shows sold out within the first half hour.

Demand for Nelson tickets was evident based on the number of people camped out overnight in the center’s gravel parking lot. The Nashville box office staff held back 200 to 250 tickets for them instead of releasing the entire inventory to internet broker Ticketmaster, allowing the sleep-deprived campers to go home happy, Webb said.

Acts chosen to appear in Nashville come from among those recommended by national booking agent Live Nation, which also suggests event ticket prices based on performer fees. However, the music center ultimately decides which acts to bring in.

Although the core ticket-buying audience is made up of residents from Brown and adjacent counties, fans also regularly drive to Nashville from Indianapolis and its doughnut counties, Webb said. But the facility’s reach has been even wider, occasionally drawing patrons from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit, for example.

Country music in particular has developed a foothold at the new center as Gill’s early success got the attention of other top-name performers in that genre, Herring said.

Classic rock and oldies groups such as the Beach Boys have also drawn big audiences to Nashville. In fact, the 1960s sand-and-surf veterans sold out matinee and evening shows held Saturday — with more than 4,000 tickets purchased.

The venue was initially referred to by local planners as the Maple Leaf, a nod to the colorful trees that fill the state park and the maple leaf sculpture in downtown Nashville.

A marketing firm later came up with Sundown at Salt Creek, referring to the adjacent Salt Creek, and the center’s location along the Salt Creek Trail.

Although Sundown was a catchy, alliterative name, what was missing in the title was “Brown County,” which local stakeholders felt had to be incorporated.

Some infrastructure issues

Although operations inside the building appear to be running seamlessly, a few infrastructure issues have surfaced during the learning curve for the building’s opening.

Namely, the center’s hookup to the town’s sewer and water systems resulted in misinformation, misunderstandings and hard feelings between the Maple Leaf Management Group and Nashville town officials. A meeting Thursday appeared to resolve the differences, however, as both sides acknowledged making mistakes. A compromise is now under consideration to cut the original $12,695 utility invoice roughly in half, to be voted on by both sides.

There have also been some bumps in getting all of the new visitors directly onto the music center property for events.

The newly constructed Maple Leaf Boulevard leads from State Road 46 to the venue, but a street sign hasn’t gone up yet at the intersection. Music center signage at the highway also doesn’t have lighting yet, which has left some first-time evening visitors in the dark in search of the concert venue entrance.

Although ticket-holders can see the stone building from the state highway, confusion in part occurs among some newcomers because Maple Leaf Boulevard doesn’t exist on internet maps.

Webb is working with Google and other internet mapping services to update their mapping information.

Meanwhile, huge concrete footers adjacent to a temporary venue sign will serve as the base for a permanent sign that will be back-lit along State Road 46, which should resolve the occasional access-point confusion.

Undeterred, concertgoers such as the Lovelesses continue to make their 90-minute journey from Pike County to Nashville to enjoy the music and the Brown County ambiance, just as the planners envisioned. Jeff and Sharon Loveless said they are eager to return April 26 for a concert by pop singer Michael Bolton.

Retired editor Tom Jekel will write a weekly column that will appear on The Republic’s Opinion page each Sunday starting March 8. Contact him by email through [email protected]

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Brown County Music Center” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

  • Directions: Driving west from Columbus on State Road 46, turn south onto the unmarked Maple Leaf Boulevard just east of the Salt Creek Inn to 200 Maple Leaf Boulevard.
  • Box-office hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and prior to concerts.
  • Phone: 812-988-5323
  • Website: browncountymusiccenter.com

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”The timeline” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

  • 2017: Planning begins to open a performing arts center on the Snyder Farm just east of the Nashville town limits on State Road 46
  • July 10, 2018: Groundbreaking
  • Aug. 15, 2019: Ribbon cutting
  • Aug. 24, 2019: Sold-out opening night with country music performer Vince Gill

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Upcoming shows” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

  • America, March 7
  • Warrant, March 14
  • Carrot Top, March 19
  • The Price is Right Live, March 22
  • Gordon Lightfoot, March 26
  • Melissa Etheridge, March 27
  • Kenny G, March 28
  • LeeAnn Rimes, April 10
  • Martina McBride, April 24
  • Michael Bolton, April 26
  • Willie Nelson & Family, April 28

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”By the numbers” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

  • 2,017: Number of seats
  • 106: Distance in feet to upper balcony seats furthest from stage
  • 32: Number of concerts from Aug. 24 opening through Feb. 12
  • 41,726: Number of tickets sold between opening and Feb. 12
  • 1,304: Average attendance during first six months (65 percent of capacity)
  • 17: Number of sellouts through Feb. 12

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”How the finances work” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

  • Brown County government set up a three-member building corporation to hold a $12.5 million mortgage to build the center, operated by a seven-member Maple Leaf Management Group
  • The local 5 percent innkeepers tax provides backup funds should the center’s operating revenue fall short of meeting monthly mortgage payment
  • Center gets 45 percent of concessions proceeds
  • Brown County Community Foundation will receive excess profits after the center’s financial obligations are met

[sc:pullout-text-end]