In The News

The rise of Panther Island Pavilion

by Preston Jones | May 16, 2013

By Preston Jones
Posted 10:56am on Thursday, May. 16, 2013

The sun sets over downtown Fort Worth as the sound of music fills the air.

It’s a postcard-perfect mid-April evening, and a crowd of more than 4,000 people has descended on a parking lot in the shadow of the Tarrant County College campus.

The asphalt teems with tents serving craft-brewed beers in 2-ounce plastic cups, and two stages featuring a panoply of indie-rock acts hum with energy well into the night. A few yards beyond the chain-link fence surrounding the city’s inaugural Untapped Festival, the Trinity River flows past, its calm waters absorbing and reflecting the rays of the setting sun.

Stop and take it all in. This is what Fort Worth’s future looks like.

That is, if J.D. Granger and the Trinity River Vision Authorityhave anything to say about it.

Over the past two years, Panther Island Pavilion, a 40-acre space tucked away underneath Henderson Street just outside downtown, has risen from a barren patch of real estate you might not even notice on your jog along the Trinity Trails to become a focal point not only for civic planners with an eye on tomorrow, but for the city and state’s music industry.

“The backdrop is crazy,” says Granger, the TRVA’s executive director. “You’re right in the middle of an urban environment, but you’ve got waterfront [access] — it’s a very unique thing.”

This year, Panther Island Pavilion is poised to become the hottest venue in town, with one high-profile event already in the can (Untapped), another primed for this weekend (Fort Worth Music Festival) and still another waiting in the wings (September’s Dia de Los Toadies).

In addition to that lineup, the TRVA will again host its popular Rockin’ the River tubing and concert series this summer, as well as the city’s Fourth of July festivities, which drew 35,000 people to the shores of the Trinity last year.

In between concerts, the calendar boasts everything from 5K fun runs (such as the Shapemagazine Diva Dash on May 25) to “paddle parties,” like the one Backwoods will hold May 26 to celebrate the opening of its canoe/kayak concession stand near the pavilion.

The TRVA’s stated mission is “to connect every neighborhood in the city to the Trinity River corridor,” and through a mix of initiatives and ambitious goals, Granger and his collaborators just might help make Fort Worth a live-music capital in the process.

Starting point
There’s no question that Fort Worth stands poised, creatively, on the verge of a musical renaissance, with multiple bands achieving success at home and beyond the Tarrant County line.

But part of what creates and sustains the health of a local music scene is its infrastructure, which, until now, has been missing some key components. Clubs with capacities of 500 and below abound in the city, but rock venues that can host more than 500 people are in short supply. The Ridglea Theater could, somewhere down the line, be a reliable venue capable of holding more than a thousand patrons, but for now, there’s a gap for local acts between, say, the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge and the more spacious confines of Fort Worth Convention Center. (Sure, Billy Bob’s sometimes books bands like Quaker City Night Hawks and the Josh Weathers Band, and Bass Hall has booked the occasional local act, such as Telegraph Canyon, to open for a national headliner. But that is rare.)

Anyone who wants to see a local band drawing more than 1,000 people but fewer than five or six thousand has no choice but to head east, toward Grand Prairie and Dallas. Plenty of Fort Worth acts capable of pulling more than Lola’s Saloon or the Live Oak can hold (like the Orbans or QCNH) end up playing spaces like the Granada Theater in Dallas, where capacity is just over 1,000.

And that’s where Panther Island Pavilion enters the picture.

The venue’s rise began innocently enough, two years ago. It was conceived as part of the decadelong Trinity River Vision, a plan meant to tie Fort Worth to the Trinity River, revitalizing the waterway with an urban infrastructure and amenities appealing to the “creative class” (a socioeconomic designation popularized by author Richard Florida).

Panther Island Pavilion, so nicknamed by local writer Kevin Buchanan in a 2007 post on his urban growth-focused website (a recent server mishap has temporarily waylaid the site), became, along with Tim Love’s Woodshed restaurant, a way for Granger to show the TRVA board and the city at large how urban planning could jump-start growth along the Trinity.

(The area, which is referred to in TRVA materials as the “Trinity Uptown” portion of the TRV plan, will be called Panther Island going forward, Granger says.)

For inspiration, Granger looked to New Braunfels’ WhiteWater Amphitheater, as well as Red Rocks Amphitheatre, southwest of Denver, and the Lawn at White River in Indianapolis. No other venue in Texas can claim to sit right on the water — even Austin’s Zilker Park is a healthy distance from Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado River — and it’s something Granger uses to set Panther Island apart from other spaces, in both an entertainment and an urban-planning sense.

“It’s always been planned that [Trinity Uptown] would be an exciting urban lifestyle,” Granger says. “People expect more in an urban environment.… We have a blank slate down there, so let’s make sure and create the character ahead of time, be unapologetic about it. If you don’t like the character, this is not the place for you to live.”

When the city’s noise ordinance was revised in early 2012, a special exception was made for the area containing Panther Island Pavilion (it’s right there on page 10 of the Jan. 23 presentation to the City Council: “Large venue in Trinity Uptown”). Granger calls it “the most liberal noise ordinance” in Fort Worth, and it was made with the intention of attracting more and larger events to the space.

Indeed, an argument can be made that none of the recent flurry of activity along or near the Trinity River — the just-opened Coyote Drive-In (see sidebar), for example, or the Clearfork Food Park — would be possible without projects like Panther Island Pavilion paving the way.

“I think it is a positive thing to reconnect with the river and engage with it, if the end result is we have a better connection to the river, and take better care of it,” says Buchanan. “People have disagreements whether the TRVA is the way to go, but I’ve been pleased, for the most part, with how they’ve done things. I think it’s going to have to happen one way or another, because [the Trinity River] is a resource that’s been neglected for a long time.”

Floating success
The TRVA launched its Rockin’ the River concert series in 2011, with a mix of local acts steeped in country and rock (full disclosure: was, and remains, a media sponsor of Rockin’ the River). Granger says that initially, the series, designed to bring live-music fans down to a largely unknown portion of the Trinity River, was intended to be a BYOB affair, with the sponsors helping cover entertainment costs.

The event wasn’t a roaring success right out of the gate, in part because of skepticism about getting into the Trinity River, and local pundits snarked about possibly finding all manner of floating horrors in the water. (Buchanan is still a little gun-shy: “I’m still not to the point where I’m super-confident to get in the river.”)

As writer Joe Nick Patoski observed for The New York Times during one event during Rockin’ the River’s inaugural season in June 2011, the “scene near downtown Fort Worth was surreal.”

Yet, as people came down to what was then only a bandshell set up to protect the tiny stage, sampled what the food trucks parked along the banks of the Trinity had to offer and spent leisurely summer evenings socializing, the concert series picked up steam. In essence, the Trinity River Vision Authority built it, and slowly but surely, Fort Worth came. Word of mouth spread, and Granger says once Rockin’ the River crystallized as a potential money-maker, things fell into place.

“Last year was the year it really took off as a business model,” Granger says. “Last year we started getting tons of calls. At that point, we got crushed. This is our third season and we’ve already got 122,000 people expected to be down there.”

This summer, more than 100,000 Fort Worthians are expected to visit Panther Island Pavilion over the coming months, some toting inner tubes and coolers, some sloshing into the river and floating up to a stage to hear acts like the Josh Weathers Band, Whiskey Folk Ramblers, Phil Hamilton and William Clark Green.

“I think it’s a really interesting concept, and I’m glad Fort Worth has invested in some Trinity [River] cleaning projects,” says Whiskey Folk Ramblers bassist Jack Russell (the band is scheduled to play the event June 20). “I think, for local bands, the free shows being hosted here at earlier hours and being kid-friendly is a great way to expose your music to a large demographic that’s never heard of you and is not coming to your midnight show at some dank, smoky little dive.… But I think the Pavilion, as a venue, is less about the music and more of an excuse to get outside and enjoy yourself.”

Granger says he didn’t have to work too hard to sell the site. He was approached by the Toadies, who decided to move their annual two-day concert, Dia de Los Toadies, from New Braunfels back home to Fort Worth, and Fort Worth Music Festival organizers, about moving their events to Panther Island Pavilion.

“I’m thrilled that you guys have a space like that,” says Marsha Milam, a veteran festival producer based in Blanco who this weekend will host the Fort Worth Music Festival (see sidebar) there, moving it from its longtime home in the Cultural District. “You have the river, you have some grass, the trees and the city. Your music scene is just getting ready to pop over there; it reminds me of Austin years ago.”

Milam, who put on the first-ever Solar Powered Music Festival at Panther Island Pavilion last summer and relocated the Ranch Bash (Oct. 19) to the site, added: “I think this is the one thing Fort Worth has needed, which is a place where you can have a good-sized festival.”

Apparently, others agree.

“We’re struggling right now to keep up with demand,” says Granger. “It’s hitting me so fast right now.”

To that end, Granger has been showing off Panther Island Pavilion to a number of music industry heavy-hitters, including representatives from AEG Live and Live Nation. (AEG Live, in particular, has long sought a toehold in Fort Worth; an aborted attempt at booking the Ridglea Theater last fall resulted in several shows being moved at the last minute to Dallas venues, as the Ridglea wasn’t ready for prime time.)

For now, the fees for organizers to use Panther Island Pavilion are competitive (a festival and/or concert-based event runs $2,500 for use of the pavilion grounds, with PIP retaining all parking revenue), and all revenue collected by the TRVA is put back into the venue and/or the surrounding trail systems, according to Granger.

“Do I plan to be in the music business forever? No,” Granger says. “We go to a cool business model, turn it over to a concessionaire and let them go. That will be the biggest struggle over the next couple years: Do we go ahead and go to a national model, or can we maintain the character of Fort Worth and keep some real grit? That’ll be a tough one.”

More to come
For now, there isn’t anything in place for a third party to take over the venue, but it’s clear the industry is responding to what’s happening at Panther Island Pavilion.

And the site will continue to expand, according to Granger. Plans are in place for a second, permanent stage to be added this summer, along with upgrading the existing stage’s infrastructure and technological capabilities.

While it’s early yet, Granger also alludes to a “very, very large festival” that could develop, alongside the Fort Worth Music Festival, at Panther Island Pavilion.

“I try to keep a sustaining venue. That’s what people expect,” Granger says. “Each year I’ve been adding to it, and with the stages going on right now, I fully expect that they’ll be paid off in two years at most.”

Could Panther Island Pavilion be the spark that ignites Fort Worth’s powder keg of a local music scene, driving attention (and dollars) to a city not often thought of as a music mecca?

It’s too soon to tell, but given the frantic pace at which Panther Island Pavilion, in less than five years, already finds itself doing business, the future seems as bright as the setting sun this April evening, glistening with possibilities for Fort Worth and its cultural future.

“Festivals are becoming a business unto themselves,” Granger says. “We are set up to do something really crazy with good services. We could do something that could really put Fort Worth on a competitive music footing.”

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones