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 cousin Stagecoach, draws hundreds of thousands of fans to see an expertly curated roster of high-profile and up-and-coming artists transforming the region’s nightlife Bacchanalia with fully booked Hotels, Airbnbs and restaurants.

Can it stay that way for the other 49 weeks of the year? Irving Azoff and Tim Leiweke, the live entertainment megamoguls behind development company Oak View Group, think so.

Azoff and Leiweke have managed Live Nation and AEG, respectively, the two largest concert promoters in America. Leiweke has served as chairman of Major League Soccer and oversaw sports franchises including the Los Angeles Kings; Azoff, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has managed artists like the Eagles and Steely Dan, served as Ticketmaster’s managing director, and overseen the renovation of the Forum in Inglewood (Azoff is also growing small: he and his wife, Shelli, own local restaurants, landmark Nate’n Al’s and the Apple Pan).

Acrisure Arena, their next big project in partnership with Live Nation, opening December 14 in Palm Desert, is a little more contradictory. It’s a gleaming 11,000-seat arena near Palm Springs, a resort town two hours from LA with a regional population of just under half a million. (Acrisure, which bought the naming rights, is an insurance company.) Azoff and Leiweke are betting fans who will come locally, on vacation, or from across the Five Counties area to see arena acts like Paramore, Dave Chappelle and Grupo Firme year to see. round.

The arena is also a very visible sign that LA’s entertainment big money is heading to the desert, when locals already fear the valley is becoming unaffordable.

“It’s a burgeoning market,” said Azoff, 74. “It has the best winter weather in the US, the population triples in the winter, and people want to be entertained. For me, given the success of Coachella and Stagecoach, that’s a no-brainer.”

Oak View, the venue development and management company co-founded by Azoff and Leiweke 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 has broken ground on building new complexes in Las Vegas, Canada, Texas and Seattle over the past five years.

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

“Around 450,000 people come in the winter who are just arriving now,” says Leiweke, 65. “They’re going to drive down the 10 freeway and be like, ‘What the hell is that?'”

A photo of the outside of an arena

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

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Acrisure is a $500 million Modernist arena jewel case that matches the area’s low-rise architecture with its undulating Jet-Age overhangs. While Palm Springs has no shortage of glitzy hotels and palatial homes, Acrisure immediately becomes one of the most visible fixtures on the area’s skyline. The privately funded venue was originally slated to be in downtown Palm Springs on tribal land owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, but relocated to unincorporated, nonprofit land north of Palm Desert after initial negotiations fell through during the pandemic .

It will be home to a new minor league hockey franchise, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, but the two veterans of the concert business seem most excited to be performing there.

“It’s a really unique design: there’s no top shell and the outdoor artist compound is incredible,” said Leiweke. “It will be the most intimate arena. I haven’t seen the Eagles as much as Irving, but I would want to see them here.”

The arena, booked by Azoff’s old company Live Nation, has already booked marquee talent to open Snowbird’s season. Chappelle and Chris Rock will headline opening night on December 14; Other upcoming shows include Hollywood bowl acts like the Doobie Brothers, Maroon 5 and the Eagles.

Leiweke sees it as a natural tour launch location before swinging through LA, Las Vegas or Phoenix. “If you’re an artist, we can make the building available for you to rehearse for a few days,” he said. “If you put Palm Springs on the itinerary, don’t look at it as work; it is a working holiday.”

Outside of festival season, options for concert-goers in the Coachella Valley have been limited to casinos, a longer trip to Ontario and Pomona, or a two-hour drive to LA

Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez believes Acrisure will transform culture in the region.

“I see this as a huge investment that will be contagious for adding new hotels and restaurants,” he said. “Comedy shows like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock? It’s amazing, we’ve never seen comedians of this quality here before. We are no longer an afterthought.”

For a majority Hispanic or Latino region where many work in the hospitality industry, Acrisure is also becoming a showcase for Mexican and Latino musical acts. Groups such as Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Banda MS have performed on Coachella’s main stage. Now they have a local arena to perform in.

“It diversifies the entertainment,” said Riverside County Supervisor Manny Perez. “Latinos know the demographics of the valley and are very willing to go to concerts. Banda MS, Café Tacuba, Marc Anthony, Pepe Aguilar: You better think it’s going to be packed for these shows.

A stand-up comedian on stage

Dave Chappelle will co-headline with Chris Rock on opening night at Palm Desert’s new Acrisure Arena.

(Lester Cohen / WireImage)

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

This wide geographic reach is unique to the region, but “the team running Acrisure needs to get creative and put together competitive offers to book artists,” Brooks continued.

“SoCal is the ultimate live entertainment market and because there is parity between Live Nation and AEG, artists can select opportunities based on money and supply. Everyone competes for everything, but you can make a terrifying amount of money with a good product like Harry Styles or Bad Bunny.”

This potential prey of well-heeled vacationers and snowbirds is part of what brought Oak View and Live Nation to the desert. But, as the bitter dispute over Pioneertown’s popular Pappy & Harriet’s venue has shown, the desert isn’t always kind to LA executives, who are breaking in with their own big plans. A jam-packed 2019 Palm Springs City Council meeting on Acrisure drew some controversial reactions from locals.

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

According to Redfin, the median home selling price in Riverside County has nearly doubled since 2017, no doubt due in part to the area’s festival glamor and relative affordability during the pandemic.

“Rural gentrification is real, but it’s been an ongoing struggle for five or 10 years,” Perez said. “They have a lot of money coming in, investing and buying land to hold or develop. But we believe the arena will create 1,500 jobs for underserved communities. This will help bring broadband and clean water to people in RVs.”

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

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

With the big AEG and Goldenvoice events already making their mark, is Acrisure a sign that not even the Coachella Valley is safe from competition?

“We will provide the venue for Paul Tollett,” Azoff said, citing the Goldenvoice CEO and Coachella co-founder. “We want to show respect to Paul out there. But he can only book three headliners and our phone is ringing with acts wanting to play. My personal opinion is that we should counter-program the festival.”

“Paul is a friend and we will always want to work with him,” Leiweke said. “Coachella is the biggest festival in the world. Paul knows that at the end of the day we are here to help him.”

For Coachella Valley Lifers, however, the end of the long trek down the 10 to catch a show is reason enough to welcome a new arena to the city.

“I have young daughters and we have always traveled to see Disney on Ice,” Hernandez said. “But now we can save on gas and hotels, stay local and enjoy what other regions have.” Acrisure Arena opens in Coachella Valley amid gentrification

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