It sounds too good to be true. A funky arts and entertainment colony on the edge of downtown, with two outside stages for music festivals, 25 bars and clubs including Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s themed country-western bar, a House of Blues-type live music venue and a South Beach-style dance club.
"It'll be a place where you can waste away an afternoon," says developer Noah Lazes. "You come have a cup of coffee, grab a sandwich. Maybe there's a cello player outside practicing in the street. Then you walk next door and there's a live artist. Then you go upstairs and there are musicians practicing in a band room."
Optimism is in the air at Lazes' NC Music Factory. The renovated early-20th century textile mill is located in the northwest corner of Fourth Ward behind a freight train shipping yard. The building is certainly an architectural gem: aged, salmon-colored bricks on the outer walls, thick pine planks on the ceilings and floors, and exposed factory-style silver air ducts and an old red sprinkler system branching across the ceilings. In the factory's few complete spaces (so far, only three businesses, including Creative Loafing, have moved in), the funky-aesthetic goal is apparent. Loud, clashing colors cover the interior walls -- hip and trendy to some, a maniacal preschooler's decorative fantasy to others.
Nice concept, but can Charlotte support such an ambitious endeavor? Lazes believes there's a lot of money in Charlotte to be expended on entertainment that isn't currently being spent.
"People ask us, 'What do you compare it to? Who's your competition?'" he says. "There isn't any. It doesn't exist. It's very odd for a city of our size, of over a million in the metro area, not to have a stroll district."
Lazes believes the 10 to 15 themed events he plans to throw at the Factory each year (for Halloween, New Years, etc.) will generate a hubbub for the complex. Also pivotal to its success are the three entertainment cornerstones -- Earnheardt's country bar, the live-music venue and the dance club. Additionally, Lazes says, it's important that the complex draws people from other cities across the region including Winston Salem, Raleigh, Greensboro and Greenville, SC.
Lazes, who has been involved in the development of 25 nightclubs across the country as well as Charlotte's CityFest concerts, realizes the challenges he faces. After all, Charlotte's leadership has always pushed sports over arts-related entertainment, and downtown bars and clubs have suffered from lack of weekday traffic.
"We're very white collar. We've got a lot of people who have to be at work at 8am," Lazes says of the city's personality. "By the time we get to Friday we're a little bit tired." Lazes identifies Charlotte's lack of tourism and small hospitality industry as contributors to the problem. He believes tourism and hospitality will get kick-started with the Arena, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and, he hopes, the NC Music Factory.
Commercial real estate market analyzer Frank Warren believes the entertainment industry in Charlotte is up and coming, and that the Music Factory has the potential to succeed. "In 1994, when we had the Final Four, they had to put fake bars and storefronts downtown," says Warren. "That's where we were 12 years ago."
Perhaps most perilous to the project's success, Lazes acknowledges, is that Charlotte lacks a sizeable class of working and performing artists. How can that cellist play in the street if he or she doesn't exist?
One person who believes Charlotte has the artistic goods to support the Music Factory is Manoj Kesavan, an architect who knows something about generating social capital. Kesavan started Point 8, a Charlotte-based group dedicated to developing a culture of creativity. Point 8 meets monthly, bringing members of different left-brain disciplines (art, architecture, design, academia) together for discussion of various issues. In the past year and a half, Point 8 has grown from 40 to 300 members. "Charlotte has a big enough [mass] of creative people who were feeling the lack of a venue like this," he says. "A lack of a serious discourse of what they really care about."
Lazes says Charlotte artists have been "frustrating" to work with. In Manhattan, he says, "They're a little bit more business savvy. In Charlotte, you have people saying we should have more of this or more of that, but they don't do anything about it." Lazes welcomes any proposals: "If you have something that fits the genre and can't write the check, that doesn't mean you can't be here."
A concern among many Point 8 members at the Music Factory last week for a tour and discussion of the project is that a cultural community cannot be artificially created. To preplan art stifles its nature.
But SoHo was created, Lazes argues, further comparing his Music Factory stroll district to Dallas' Deep Ellum and Atlanta's Buckhead sections. But SoHo was created by artists, not developers; Deep Ellum has a history of arts dating back to the 1920s; and Buckhead grew gradually and was backed by several wealthy neighborhoods.
A more apt comparison might be Atlanta's much-hyped foible Underground Atlanta, a stroll district that boasted different entertainment opportunities for everybody. Underground Atlanta offers a margarita bar (also planned for the NC Music Factory), a sports bar (also planned for the NC Music Factory), a salsa dance club, and drag queen and goth clubs. On almost every night, Underground Atlanta is a ghost town, and many operators are moving out.
Like the Music Factory, Underground Atlanta was planned on a site that didn't have a history of entertainment use.
"I think that if I put Nickelback in your backyard or my backyard that people are coming," says Lazes. "The key is that if we put the talent here, and once they get here, they have a good time."
You can't blame the artists who came to hear Lazes speak for being disappointed with a cultural district when its creator uses an artistically posing cash cow like Nickelback as part of his paradigm. Another concern among the creative types is that several bars and restaurants to sign leases, such as Wet Wilie's, are chains.
Charlotte artist John W. Love Jr. isn't buying Lazes' pitch. "Don't piss on my shoes and then try to tell my black ass it's raining," says Love. "Either take your extra-special, variegated strain of cultural and inclusive diversity out of the realm of conceptual and rhetorical hype and actualize it in your design, or simply call the project what it is -- a development venture that stands to make a few handfuls of people a lot of money predicated on trendy food, alcohol and music that lends itself to being the soundtrack to people's eating, drinking, hootin' and hollerin'."