Changes at White River State Park: Lawn Gone?

Will they make Indy’s best outdoor concert venue better—or just bigger?
It’s one of the joys of summer: laying a blanket on a patch of cool grass at The Lawn at White River State Park and seeing the likes of Jack Johnson perform in front of a gorgeous sunset. Drink in the moment even more this year, because change is coming as the intimate venue enters its second decade.
The park’s development commission is considering a plan to scale up The Lawn with a permanent stage and 3,000 to 5,000 covered, reserved seats, relegating the general-admission greenspace (which currently accommodates the majority of the audience) to the back. The total capacity could expand to 12,000 people, up from 7,400 now.
Regulars worry that The Lawn’s cozy vibe and laid-back, egalitarian principles might fall prey to the expansion. Fans who pooh-poohed the Port-A-Potties will be excited for actual restrooms, but they’ll miss the sight of everyone seated in the same low-slung blue chair, handed out free at the gates. The musicians stand to gain the most: Their dressing rooms will be upgraded from the current trailers, and they might get more money from the reserved seats and increased ticket draw. As a result, the new Lawn could attract acts that are too big for the existing venue but too small for Noblesville’s 24,000-person Klipsch Music Center, bolstering what is already a perennially strong lineup that this year includes Johnson and Panic! at the Disco.
None of this will happen until at least 2016, and park executive director Bob Whitt says he wants to maintain “the boutique feel, the connection that exists between the artists and the attendees.” So far the park has proven it can upgrade without ruining the good things. Organizers have added a VIP terrace and 800 reserved chairs for some shows. But despite the good intentions, the commission might have a bigger issue: competition. The Star reported in February that the organization that controls the old General Motors Stamping Plant across White River, less than 1 mile away, considered a proposal for a new amphitheater. Mayor Ballard’s plan to relocate jails and courts to that site might have staved off a Lawn rival for now, but there’s no guarantee that the investors won’t continue to look elsewhere. [Update: The Indianapolis Business Journal reported on July 16 that plans for both an outdoor concert venue and a criminal-justice center at the GM plant have been approved.]
Until The Lawn has a permanent space, “it’s really nothing more than a temporary facility that could go away at a moment’s notice,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert trade publication Pollstar. “By investing the money, they’re saying, ‘We’re here permanently.’” That should be music to fans’ ears.
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the July 2014 issue.