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Acrisure Arena opens in Coachella Valley amid gentrification


For three weeks in April, the Coachella Valley is the center of the world for live music. Its flagship event, Goldenvoice’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, along with its country-music cousin, Stagecoach, draw hundreds of thousands of fans to see an expertly curated assortment of A-list and up-and-coming artists, transforming the region into a nightlife Bacchanalia with hotels, Airbnbs and restaurants booked solid.

Can it stay that way the other 49 weeks of the year? Irving Azoff and Tim Leiweke, the live entertainment mega-moguls behind the development firm Oak View Group, are convinced it can.

Azoff and Leiweke have run Live Nation and AEG, respectively, the two largest concert promoters in America. Leiweke has been chairman of Major League Soccer and overseen sports franchises including the Los Angeles Kings; Azoff, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has managed artists including the Eagles and Steely Dan, served as chief executive of Ticketmaster and overseen the refurbishing of the Forum in Inglewood (Azoff goes small, too: he and his wife, Shelli, own local dining landmarks Nate’n Al’s and the Apple Pan).

Acrisure Arena, their next major project, in partnership with Live Nation, opening in Palm Desert on Dec. 14, is a bit more counterintuitive. It’s a glistening 11,000-capacity arena near Palm Springs, a vacation town two hours from L.A. with a regional population of just under half a million. (Acrisure, which bought naming rights, is an insurance company.) Azoff and Leiweke are betting fans will come in locally, on vacation or from all over a five-county area to see arena acts like Paramore, Dave Chappelle and Grupo Firme year-round.

The arena is also a very visible sign of big L.A. entertainment money moving into the desert, when locals are already wary of the valley growing unaffordable.

“This is a burgeoning market,” Azoff, 74, said. “It’s got the best winter weather in the U.S., the population triples over the winter, and people there are looking to be entertained. For me, it’s a no-brainer given the success of Coachella and Stagecoach.”

Oak View, the venue-development and management company Azoff and Leiweke co-founded in 2015, owns or is a partner in 36 arenas and nine stadiums in North America, including the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Madison Square Garden in New York City, Bridgestone Arena in Nashville and the Chase Center in San Francisco. Even during the pandemic, Oak View Group went on an arena-building spree, breaking ground on new complexes in Las Vegas, Canada, Texas and Seattle over the last five years.

Azoff and Leiweke, both L.A.-area residents, each have vacation homes in the Coachella Valley. A few weeks before the venue opens to fans, Azoff (who Zoomed in from a private jet) and Leiweke (calling from an office at Oak View Group headquarters) sounded giddy about opening a venue in their part-time backyard.

“Around 450,000 people come during the winter who are just arriving now,” Leiweke, 65, said. “They’re going to be driving down the 10 Freeway and go, ‘What the hell is that?’”

A photo of the outside of an arena

The 11,000-seat Acrisure Arena will be home to a minor-league hockey team and will host such acts as Maroon 5, Grupo Firme and the Eagles.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Acrisure is a $500-million modernist jewel box of an arena, matching the low-slung architecture of the area with wavy jet-age overhangs. While Palm Springs has no shortage of glistening hotels and palatial homes, Acrisure will immediately become one of the most visible fixtures in the area’s skyline. The privately funded venue was initially slated to rise in downtown Palm Springs, on tribal land owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, but moved to unincorporated, nonprofit-owned land just north of Palm Desert after early negotiations fell apart during the pandemic.

It’ll be the home for a new minor-league hockey franchise, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, but the two concert-biz veterans sound most excited about catching performances there.

“It’s a really unique design: There’s no upper bowl and the outdoor artist compound is incredible,” Leiweke said. “It’ll be the most intimate arena. I haven’t seen the Eagles as often as Irving has, but this is where I’d want to see them.”

The arena, booked by Azoff’s old company Live Nation, has already slotted marquee talent to open the snowbird season. Chappelle and Chris Rock will headline opening night on Dec. 14; other upcoming shows include Hollywood Bowl-caliber acts like the Doobie Brothers, Maroon 5 and the Eagles.

Leiweke sees it as a natural tour kickoff location before swinging through L.A., Las Vegas or Phoenix. “If you’re an artist, we can give you the building to rehearse for a few days,” he said. “When you see Palm Springs on the tour itinerary, you don’t think of it as work; it’s a working vacation.”

Outside of festival season, options for Coachella Valley concertgoers were up until now limited to casino venues, a longer trip into Ontario and Pomona, or a two-hour drive into L.A.

Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez thinks Acrisure will be transformative for culture in the area.

“I see this as a huge investment that will become contagious for adding new hotels and restaurants,” he said. “Comedy shows like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock? That’s amazing, we’ve never seen that quality of comedian here. We’re not an afterthought anymore.”

For a majority Hispanic or Latinx region, where many work in blue-collar hospitality jobs, Acrisure will also become a showcase venue for Mexican and Latin music acts. Groups like Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Banda MS have played Coachella’s main stage. Now they’ll have a local arena to perform in.

“This diversifies entertainment,” Riverside County Supervisor Manny Perez said. “Knowing the demographics of the valley, Latinos are very willing to go to concerts. Banda MS, Café Tacuba, Marc Anthony, Pepe Aguilar: You’d better believe it’s gonna be packed for those shows.”

A stand-up comedian onstage

Dave Chappelle will co-headline alongside Chris Rock on opening night at the new Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert.

(Lester Cohen / WireImage)

Dave Brooks, Billboard’s senior director of live music and touring, said, “The customer base for the Acrisure Arena obviously draws well beyond the Coachella Valley. The region’s biggest draw is already live music: Coachella and Stagecoach.”

That broad geographic reach is unique in the region, yet “the team running Acrisure will have to get creative and put together competitive offers to book artists,” Brooks continued.

“SoCal is the ultimate live entertainment market, and since there is parity between Live Nation and AEG, artists can pick and choose opportunities based on the money and offer. Everyone is competing for everything, but if you have a good product, like Harry Styles or Bad Bunny, you can make a shockingly massive amount of money.”

That potential haul from well-heeled vacationers and snowbirds is part of what brought Oak View and Live Nation out to the desert. But as the withering fight over the beloved Pioneertown venue Pappy & Harriet’s showed, the desert doesn’t always take kindly to L.A. executives swooping in with their own grand plans. A packed 2019 Palm Springs City Council meeting about Acrisure drew some contentious reactions from locals.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the community,” Leiweke said. “We want to add to it. There’s a lot of history of artists making the desert what it is today.”

According to Redfin, the median home sale price in Riverside County has nearly doubled since 2017, no doubt partly due to the area’s festival-driven glamour and its relative affordability during the pandemic.

“Rural gentrification is real, but it’s been an ongoing struggle for five or 10 years,” Perez said. “You do have big money coming in, investing and buying land to hold or develop. But we think the arena is going to create 1,500 jobs for underserved communities. That will help get broadband and clean water out to people in mobile homes.”

“There are pros and cons, I can’t deny it,” he continued. “But I think the pros outweigh the cons.”

“People do worry about a top-down approach,” Hernandez added, lamenting the L.A. carpetbagger attitude of “‘we know what we’re doing, we don’t need your input.’ But I told Irving and Tim that you have to understand the demographics, to think about the Coachella Valley’s identity. We want to make sure everyone in the desert can feel at home here.”

For the major AEG and Goldenvoice events that have already made the area’s reputation, is Acrisure a sign that not even the Coachella Valley is safe from competition?

“We’ll make the venue available for Paul Tollett,” Azoff said, referencing Goldenvoice’s chief executive and Coachella’s co-founder. “We want to show Paul respect out there. But he can only book three headliners, and our phone is ringing with acts who want to play. My personal view is that we should counterprogram the festival.”

“Paul is a friend, and we’ll always want to work with him,” Leiweke said. “Coachella is the greatest festival in the world. Paul knows, at end of day, we’re here to help him.”

For Coachella Valley lifers, however, the end of the long trek down the 10 to see a show is reason enough to welcome a new arena to town.

“I’ve got young daughters, and we always traveled to go to see Disney on Ice,” Hernandez said. “But now we can save on gas and hotels, stay local and enjoy what other regions have.”

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