January 5, 2012; Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer | How do you save a world-famous performance venue, where legendary rock groups from the 1960s and ‘70s brought the house down? In Cleveland, the Agora theater has been quietly donated by the LoConti family that owned the complex to MidTown Cleveland, Inc., a nonprofit that plans to refurbish the theater and create office space in the building for small creative companies at $8 per square foot. This is a multimillion-dollar project that MidTown Cleveland is undertaking with Hemingway Development, a private real estate developer.
Potentially a five-acre economic development venture (if the LoConti’s parking is included), the MidTown project is representative of the kinds of economic development projects many nonprofits are attempting: mixed use, often cross-subsidizing. Initially an opera house built in 1913, the Agora reopened as a rock club in 1966, with the LoContis booking the Buckinghams as its first national act. Others over the years included Grand Funk Railroad, ZZ Top, and Ted Nugent. The Agora was actually a network of rock music halls across the country, with radio and TV shows and outdoor music festivals at the Buckeye Lake Music Center.
Considered by some to be the nation’s preeminent rock club, like many, the Agora had hit hard times, the non-Cleveland venues closing and the club needing major refurbishing to survive. The LoConti family has continued to maintain the facility as a rock club, featuring such acts in recent years as Insane Clown Posse and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. This will be a complex project, and the jury is out on whether MidTown can pull it off. It may require a variety of federal, state, and local subsidies in order to work—for example, New Market Tax Credits and tax-exempt financing. But MidTown knows the Agora’s history, and will try to keep Henry LoConti on as theater manager.—Ruth McCambridge