It's a question that developers (and obsessive Kevin Costner fans) ask almost daily: "If you build it, will they come?" Noah Lazes, head of Charlotte's ARK Management, prides himself on being on the right side of that equation more often than not. A successful nightclub and restaurant proprietor (Fat Tuesday), festival promoter (CityFest Live) and entrepreneur, Lazes makes his living by being right.
So why is he risking his reputation on building an entire music and arts district -- tentatively dubbed the Charlotte Music Factory -- in a forgotten area of downtown boxed in by a factory, an interstate, and a graveyard? Because he's confident that the people of Charlotte, tired of a lack of choices and without a centralized arts district, will make the trip. Moreover, he's confident people from surrounding areas -- Concord, Gastonia, Greenville, Atlanta -- will make the trip as well. To hear Lazes tell it, the project should literally speak for itself.
"That area's a cornerstone to our uptown," says Lazes. That I-77/I-277 intersection is a gateway to our entire uptown, just like Bank of America stadium is on the other side. We have an opportunity to provide to the city something that people can see from those interstates and say to each other, "Wow, Charlotte's vibrant! They have a lot of stuff happening.' I think it's very important to get that corner cranked up."
Lazes, who started buying up the 30-some acres near Graham Street eight years ago, said he decided some time back that the best use for the property was to dedicate it to a few of the things most people can agree that they like, if not the particulars involved: music and food.
"There's an opportunity here not just to create a few venues, but an entire area," Lazes says. "This is going to be a consolidated, music-centered district, from band rehearsal studios to recording studios to record labels to teaching studios to production facilities to equipment repair places to small and large live music clubs, nightclubs, martini bars, cafes, art galleries, potentially a large outdoor venue -- a whole broad arts and cultural destination. I picture it as being kind of similar to Deep Ellum in Dallas. No one ever comes to Charlotte and complains that it's not safe and green and a great place to do business. What they complain about is that there's no entertainment."
To those who tell him he's crazy -- some local club owners, the citizens outraged when he once suggested an entrance to the facility going through Elmwood Cemetery -- Lazes point to the growth of another area of uptown he's had firsthand experience with: College Street.
"When I started out (on College Street), it was just me and Andy Kastanas at Mythos," says Lazes. "And in 10 years, we've seen that the market is there if just we do it right. That place is one of the city's success stories. This project would only complement what's already there, I think. I think it can help make Charlotte a regional destination, not just a local destination. People in Greenville, SC, can hop on our new train commuter system and ride down here."
Lazes says he has only become more assured as time passes, despite the long lag time in cleaning up the old warehouses on the property, fighting access issues, and city hall. "The response we've gotten so far from interested parties has been phenomenal," he says. "People seem to really want to be a part of this once they see it."
Central to Lazes' philosophy is to tie the businesses in the district together both through a unity of offerings and an emphasis on communal activities like theme events and music festivals. To truly succeed, Lazes will have to overcome the inertia that seems to characterize many local music fans -- those who give Charlotte the dubious "event town" tag -- without alienating the city's artistic community. Asheville's Orange Peel is a good example, where the venue is as much a part of the experience as the live acts.
"All these festivals, including my own, have to go uptown and shut down streets and parking lots and set up and tear down in just a few hours," says Lazes. "You can only go so far within those parameters. When you have to go in and set up after Friday traffic, about the best you can hope for is a stage and some beer booths. The beauty in this site, with all the patios and outdoor stages, is that you can plan ahead of time. You can have theme events that people will talk about: Fourth of July, St. Patrick's, etc. When I did Fat Tuesday, the best days -- by far -- were when I had a festival in front of it. Not twice normal, but times ten.
To Lazes, the key to the area's success will be in its simplicity. Instead of trying to be everything to somebody, Lazes is taking the opposite tact: try to be something to everyone -- including those folks that you might not ordinarily think of as music-goers.
"There is no question in my mind that there is demand for this," says Lazes. "To my knowledge, there's not a campus like this in the country -- a place where you can take a lesson, get your instrument repaired, rehearse, play a 300-seat gig, a 2,000 seat gig, potentially a 5,000 seat gig, record a live album, a studio, shoot a music video over at Silver Hammer Studios, rent equipment, and eat a meal besides. Together as a group, I think they'll really benefit from being side by side. What we're going to do is not going to take away from what already exists. We're going to do our best to expand the demographic, and hopefully give people a place that as of right now don't have a place to go. My father just moved here from New Orleans with his family. He's in his 50s, but he likes to get out and do things, go see a live band every now and then. Unfortunately, he's limited in his choices. By providing them with some additional selections, he and people like him are more likely to do it more often. Instead of going once a month, they might go three times a month.
"We need it," he continues. It's as simple as that. Right now, there are a lot of artists that are hurting attendance-wise when they play here because there's no good venue for them. I hate to use the cliched phrase, but I can see this being a "House of Blues"-type venue. Something that doesn't just do alternative rock shows. Some place The Neville Brothers could play, Norah Jones, then maybe a Creed or Coldplay. A place where you could cross-market. Where you could bring Bo Diddley in and have a good crowd because the venue has appeal too. That's what we're after here. An experience."
And if there's one thing Lazes trusts, it's experience. His experience tells him that, "If you build it, they will come." And though only time will tell, Lazes is absolutely certain that they'll show up. That cornfield baseball diamond did pretty well too, if you'll remember.