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Defunct Fishtown factory to become Live Nation music venue

Doesn't look like much from the outside - just the ghostly remains of a century-old smelting and refining facility in Fishtown.

House of Blues Entertainment CEO Ron Bension at the site of his next crown jewel, the Fillmore, on April 15, 2015. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )
House of Blues Entertainment CEO Ron Bension at the site of his next crown jewel, the Fillmore, on April 15, 2015. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )Read more

Doesn't look like much from the outside - just the ghostly remains of a century-old smelting and refining facility in Fishtown.

But there's lots of lively banging going on inside the former Ajax Metal Co., across Delaware Avenue from the SugarHouse Casino at Frankford Avenue. Give project developers just a half-year more, they will vow at a press unveiling Thursday morning, and this giant block of gentrifying space will be heating up the 'hood with a $32 million entertainment complex sure to jack up Philadelphia's already competitive concert business.

Two state-of-the-art music venues under one roof - a two-level, 2,500-person-capacity concert hall called the Fillmore and the separate 450-patron Foundry club (plus bars and restaurant) - will anchor the project, run by the House of Blues Entertainment (HoBE) division of Live Nation. The complex promises to be "the most beautiful in our entire chain" of 58 venues, said project champion Ron Bension, HoBE's CEO.

Dubbed Penn Treaty Village, this 141,000-square-foot facility and nearby development has garnered neighborhood support because it revitalizes a decrepit pocket between I-95 and Delaware Avenue. At the same time, some promoters fear the project could sap attendance at other venues across the region, a plaint "aired often but never actually coming true after we open a new venue," said HoBE/Live Nation publicist Jim Yeager.

Live Nation, which is publicly traded, is already Philadelphia's - and the nation's - largest concert presenter, regularly contracting music acts for 50-city tours, steering action to the Wells Fargo Center, Susquehanna Bank Center, Festival Pier, Tower Theater, and Theater of Living Arts.

Live Nation also is Atlantic City's most active promoter at the Borgata. Still, the local division has been looking to plant a new jewel here for the last four years, said local executive Geoff Gordon.

The Fillmore brand celebrates the heritage of the legendary ballroom/theater/tour presenter Bill Graham, and speaks to the upmarket, customer-courting, and talent-nurturing directions the live-music business has taken.

"I wanted to have a development club" - for newcomers - "and a larger, flexible, state-of-the-art concert venue for major artists, both under the same roof," said Gordon. "The hope is, people who come to see a big act will linger and check out the singer-songwriter or indie rock group playing a late set in the smaller room."

And if a newbie scheduled to play the Foundry on a Tuesday blows up fast and the Fillmore's not booked that night, "it will be easy for us to move the band down to the big room," said Dan Schartoff, production vice president for HoBE.

With movable curtain walls, adjustable lighting, and infinitely tweakable sound (installed by Lititz, Pa.'s legendary Clair Bros.), the Fillmore can be downsized to look good with 700 to 1,000 patrons (mostly standing), or accommodate 1,200 for an "all-seated show." The facility also will offer subdividable nooks for private-party rentals, serving "anywhere from 50 to 3,000," said Schartoff.

Can you hear the teeth-grinding of rival promoters at the smaller Ardmore Music Hall, World Cafe Live, and Underground Arts; the medium-size Trocadero, Union Transfer, and Keswick Theatre; and the Fillmore's most obvious rival, the 2,500- to 3,000-person-capacity Electric Factory, steered by former Live Nation exec Larry Magid?

"It's crazy," said rival concert booker Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment. "This town is out of control, over-clubbed. It's become a seller's market. We're fighting, competing over everything, even acts worth $5. Talent agents are looking at us and licking their lips like we're a big lamb chop."

World Cafe Live's developer, Hal Real, said he is glad his two-room "music clubhouse" in University City has had "10 years to establish a foothold in this very crowded market."

Real has "heard the talk" of yet another whopper venue plotted for North Broad Street (think: the Met). But the Live Nation unveiling may put the kibosh on that iffy thing, as it solidifies the growing Chinatown/Northern Liberties/Fishtown/Riverfront - "East Philly"? - entertainment district.

The fine details

Fillmore-branded clubs all share some signature design elements. Think lots of sparkly crystal chandeliers, plush (and sound-improving) red drapes, oak flooring, a gallery of vintage Fillmore concert posters. For Philly's sake, club designers will work the posters into an American flag motif and install a giant "LIVE" sculpture evoking the LOVE statue. Funky details of this National Register site will be exploited, from exposed steel beams to the monster-size chimney poking through the Foundry.

Up-sell options will include premium-price proscenium box and table seating and a ticket bump-up for faster entry.

This all plays off Bension's customer-centric roots, running theme parks for the Universal Studios Recreation Group.

Fishtown Neighbors Association president Jordon Rushie said that area residents are pleased with the project. "Even after a community meeting a year ago that voted overwhelmingly in its favor - 144-25 - project developer Michael Samschick continued to address the concerns of opponents, to win them over, too."

This project, also to include a comedy club, a 24-lane bowling alley, a working distillery, and an Italian eatery, is reclaiming a Fishtown fringe that has suffered from crime and vandalism.

To ease the noise and traffic concerns of neighbors, facility designers moved the main gate to tucked-away Canal Street, which could become vehicle-free.

Traffic patterns in the neighborhood (and onto I-95) have also been carefully plotted, said Samschick. A total of 500 parking spaces have been located, not counting the SugarHouse garage and outdoor spaces that some may use.

"We anticipate lots of visitors will rely on public transportation, because it's so convenient," said Bension. The Girard Avenue station of the Market-Frankford Line is a four-minute walk.

Indego is installing a bike-share station.

And - shades of Graham's San Francisco - the Girard Avenue-skimming Route 15 trolley (a.k.a. Northern Liberties Loop) - makes turnarounds and pauses at a cute station right next to the complex.