It was a warm spring night in May 1989 when Sandi Patty took the stage at Central Indiana’s newest concert venue.
Under that dark Hoosier sky, the stage lights must have seemed like a billion lightning bugs and the guitar chords might have shocked the cows in nearby pastures.
About 7,000 fans gathered in the seats and the lawn at the new Deer Creek Music Center — built in the sprawling unincorporated fields east of Noblesville, far away from the city lights.
“I feel like we watched it, layer by layer, be built from the ground up,’’ said the Grammy-winning Patty, an Anderson native who lived 20 minutes away from the venue.
“The Hoosier state was overlooked in many regards from an entertainment perspective, so to see this space come to life as a resident of Central Indiana was so cool.”
The names have changed over the years, the sounds have evolved and the lights have grown even brighter — but the music has not stopped. Now known as the Klipsch Music Center, the venue has kicked off its 25th season of rocking the Hoosier heartland.
Although it initially tested the patience of its conservative, rural neighbors, the venue would prove to pump millions into the local economy, to the tune of some $30 million a year for Hamilton County businesses.
Voices from the stage have ranged from Frank Sinatra to KISS, Jimmy Buffet to Jay-Z, high school valedictorians to Sarah Palin.
And who could forget the “Deadheads,” those laid-back, sometimes unshowered fans who followed the Grateful Dead for years, camping out on farms and swarming the city for an entire week.
For music fans, the concert venue has been the place to catch some of the nation’s biggest bands and performers. For Hamilton County, it’s been a major moneymaker.
But for Indianapolis, it’s simply the one that got away — a proposal rejected not once but twice by a city looking for opportunities to enliven its Downtown.
“Nothing against Hamilton County, but it was definitely a loss for Downtown Indianapolis,” said former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who took office in 1992 and spent the next eight years trying to fill the void left when Deer Creek hit the road for the suburbs.
That void was at least partially filled a decade ago when The Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park opened. A much smaller venue with seating for about 6,000, it attracts nationally known acts to the heart of the city.
But some say Downtown Indy should not stop looking for a larger outdoor music venue, perhaps one that could be built as part of a redevelopment of the old GM stamping plant across the White River.
“Hospitality and entertainment is the core that holds a city and a region together,” said Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard University who splits his time among New York, Boston and Indianapolis.
Under Goldsmith, who served from 1992-2000, Downtown boomed with life, thanks to the opening of attractions such as Circle Centre mall and Conseco Fieldhouse. But in an interview last week with The Indianapolis Star, he still lamented losing Deer Creek.
“Before I was mayor, there wasn’t much Downtown. We needed people, particularly with a lot of the high-end job growth moving to the suburbs,” he said. “A successful venue like this would have been, and still would be, a major component of the Downtown experience.”
Not an easy sell
It’s hard to imagine a tax-paying, job-producing venue like Klipsch Music Center being turned away by any city these days. But that’s exactly what happened in 1986 and 1987.
First rejected by the town of Westfield — where planners were warned a rock-and-roll presence would be like “dancing in the street with the devil” — the promoters turned to the big city.
First, they went after 124 acres on Indianapolis’ Northwestside near I-465 and West 86th Street. Neighbors in the Traders Point area quickly joined forces to fight the venue by pressuring then-Mayor William Hudnut to withdraw his support.
Next, they tried Downtown, which at the time was still struggling to find an identity. According to reports at the time, Hudnut pushed hard to get the concert venue built in the planned White River State Park, just west of Downtown.
But opposition came from a number of directions — primarily the board that controlled the state park, which ultimately decided against the project. There was also push-back from some who worried about the effects of noise on the animals at the Indianapolis Zoo, and from some at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who were not willing to sell two acres of adjacent land.
Bill McGowan, who led the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association (now Visit Indy) from 1973-2006, recalled in an interview that his board passed a resolution urging White River State Park to approve the center’s plan. That did not happen.
“At the time, we felt it was (a big loss),” said McGowan. “With restaurants and hotels in walking distance, it would have been a tremendous opportunity for Downtown to grow. And we felt this was the place to put it.”
Shortly after the rejection, Sunshine Promotions moved on to the north, finding a wide open spot in Hamilton County.
“We were disappointed,” said McGowan. “We really did not have anything like it in Downtown. And we still don’t.”
Bob Schultz, vice president of marketing and communications for Indianapolis Downtown Inc., said Indy’s loss was definitely Noblesville’s gain — but it wasn’t a game-breaker for Downtown.
“Disappointing? Yes. But have we continued to grow in other ways? Absolutely,” said Schultz. “It did not kill Downtown.”
So, Deer Creek (now Klipsch) was built off a dark, lonely I-69 highway exit where land was cheap ($5,000 an acre) and there were no zoning rules in place.
Many rural neighbors tried their best to fight the venue as well. Without zoning meetings and public hearings to vent, they had to resort to filing a lawsuit over what noise from electric guitars might do to farm animals.
The outdoor music complex was built on 220 acres, and on May 23, 1989, Patty became the first performer to take the stage at the brand new Deer Creek Music Center.
The rock group Cinderella followed the next night, playing to 5,500 fans and using enough profanity during the show to prompt one neighbor to file a complaint with the Indiana State Police and nearly a dozen others to show up at the Hamilton County Commissioners’ meeting.
Today, the complaints are not so frequent.
The Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau says there is no doubt the music venue is the primary magnet that draws visitors and their wallets to the area. Nearly 70 percent of the Klipsch audience comes from outside Hamilton County.
“With so many people attending Klipsch events from outside our community, we recognize it as our top tourist attraction,” said Karen Radcliff, deputy director of the Visitors Bureau.
On average, the music center draws about 450,000 people each year, Radcliff said, and the economic impact to Hamilton County is estimated at more than $30 million annually, most of that spent at local hotels, restaurants and retail shops.
For many years, Deer Creek was the lone bright light in an otherwise dark suburban area. But gradually, Noblesville began to expand toward its southeastern edge, single family homes began to sprout within subdivisions and in fall 2007, a new Simon Property Group outdoor mall opened.
The once tiny Exit 10 — now 210 — has been transformed into a major highway point serving both Noblesville and Fishers, along with tens of thousands of daily travelers on I-69.
“I think the music venue has been a marker, making the area a natural direction to expand,” said Sharon McMahon, president of the Noblesville Chamber of Commerce. “Now we have the Corporate Campus and the mall. ... I think the venue has been a major player in those decisions.”
It has been a major employer, too.
Although many of the jobs revolving around concerts are actually filled by vendor companies, officials with Live Nation say the venue produces 600-700 seasonal and part-time jobs over the course of a single season, along with a dozen or so full-time ones.
25 years of change
This year’s season-opening show at Klipsch Music Center was Brad Paisley, one of the hottest country music stars today — and evidence that things have changed over the past 25 years.
The new Deer Creek filled its first few seasons with a variety of music, heavy on rock-and-roll but including some “American Songbook” performances by Frank Sinatra and the like.
“But we have not done those in recent years,” said Tom Mendenhall, a senior vice president at Live Nation, who acknowledges that country music has become a much bigger attraction.
“In our early lineups, we did some country, but maybe only one to three shows a year. But this year, we have 10 shows on a ‘megaticket,’ and then one more. And they are all doing very well.”
Music has not been the only change.
After more than a decade of shows, Deer Creek became Verizon Wireless Music Center in November 2000, thanks to a 10-year contract for naming rights. Then, in October 2011, the name changed again, to Klipsch Music Center, as the maker of home theater systems, speakers and headphones purchased the naming rights.
Structurally, the venue has grown in size. In 2000, a $1.6 million face-lift included an expansion of the lawn seating and construction of a new entry plaza. The seating capacity went from about 18,000 to 24,000.
That’s a lot of people trying to pour in and out of the music center at one time — which led to changes in traffic control as well.
When it first opened (and continuing for many years), incoming concert crowds were known to spend more than an hour in traffic — clogging I-69, Ind. 37 and all roads leading to the venue.
Outgoing crowds did not have it much better, especially if you parked in the middle of the parking lots, where it could easily take you another hour or longer just to get out of the facility.
“Yeah, you have to understand that when Deer Creek was first built, all we had was a two-lane country road,” said Mendenhall. “But with the nearby developments, the mall, the homes, it’s obviously changed a lot.”
First, 146th Street was expanded from two to six lanes, and a new entry created to the venue. INDOT helped a few years later by updating the highway interchange, adding lanes and lights to lessen congestion — a move also brought about when Simon’s Hamilton Town Center mall was developed.
“Road improvements have allowed for much quicker flow of traffic,” said Mendenhall, “but obviously, with 25,000 people, you will always have some issues.”
Klipsch Music Center has not yet announced a major celebration of its 25th year, however it has created some “25th Anniversary” apparel, including tank-tops, T-shirts and hoodies.
So far, four of this year’s concerts include entertainers who were also on that first schedule in 1989 — Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, Tom Petty and Ozzy Osbourne.
What does the future hold?
Mendenhall said at this point, there are not any major changes planned.
But is there still a future for outdoor music in Downtown Indianapolis?
White River State Park eventually became home to The Lawn, a much smaller venue that celebrates its 10th season this year. But today’s city planners may still have an ace up their sleeve.
“Our best days are ahead of us,” said Schultz, whose Downtown group has launched a five-year strategic planning process that includes a chance for anyone to have input — including those who want another major outdoor concert venue.
“We have had more than 2,000 take our public survey (www.indyvelocity.com) in order to identify what our priorities should be,” he said. “And one area that keeps coming up is activation of public space.
“So, we look at places like the GM stamping plant right across the street from the zoo. Is that going to be an opportunity for public use? Is there a huge company shopping for something like this? And that is just one example.”
Goldsmith said city leaders need to keep such a possibility on the front burner of long-term planning.
“Indy will not succeed without a constant infusion of new venues ... period,” Goldsmith said. “They always need to be looking.”