Fulton County ends Live Nation’s operation of Wolf Creek venue

Wolf Creek amphitheater was being run by Live Nation, but Fulton County recently canceled that contract. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Combined ShapeCaption
Wolf Creek amphitheater was being run by Live Nation, but Fulton County recently canceled that contract. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Less than three years into a 10-year contract with Live Nation, Fulton County has quietly ended an agreement for the concert promotion company to operate its Wolf Creek Amphitheater.

The decision to end the pact brings an end to the county's plans to use the venue to attract greater economic development to the south Fulton area.

VIDEO: Previous coverage on this issue

Combined ShapeCaption
The popular music venue is making money despite a list of management problems.

Fulton paid a $110,000 termination fee for the cancellation and the county will now rent out the facility for concerts or other events to anyone who wants to use it.

The deal with Live Nation was expected to bring in between $800,000 and $1 million annually, but the county got just $125,000 over the past two years.

Live Nation received $1.125 million over the term of the contract, which ended Jan. 23.

Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said he did not see a path toward larger payouts without investing $3 million in county money to update the 5,300-capacity venue, including changing some of the lawn seating to chairs and upgrading the stage.

It cost $6.1 million to build the venue, which opened in 2011 and was built on the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics shooting range.

“It would’ve been a very significant investment,” Anderson said. “It would truly have been putting public money at risk for an unsure investment.”

Additionally, Anderson said, area residents, who had protested the original agreement, complained about the higher cost of tickets under Live Nation, and the propensity for the promoter to bring national acts. Under county leadership, past performers were largely nostalgia R&B/soul acts like El DeBarge, Doug. E. Fresh, Keith Sweat and Dru Hill.

In 2017, Live Nation booked Patti LaBelle, Mary J. Blige and a music festival with Big Boi and Goodie Mob to the venue, among others.

While the nostalgia acts were often sell-outs, Anderson estimated ticket sales were frequently closer to 70 percent of the amphitheater’s capacity under Live Nation. The company declined to comment on the contract or its termination. It also operates venues including Cellairis Amphitheatre at Lakewood, Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park in Buckhead and Ameris Bank Amphitheatre in Alpharetta.

The contract with Live Nation originally came about after a November 2016 audit of Wolf Creek found more than two dozen violations of county policy, including cash management issues, preferential treatment for some vendors and a ticket-printing practice that gave complimentary access to thousands more people than was allowed, overcrowding the facility.

At the time, Anderson said the venue had been poorly managed and that local government did not belong in the entertainment business. The county turned the venue over to Live Nation in 2017 and fired the employees it said were responsible for the wrongdoing. The fired employees sued the county, and the litigation is ongoing.

With Live Nation contract's termination, Anderson said the plans for the venue and the venue are "more modest" than they were in 2017. Wolf Creek will be treated as a facility the county rents out — for $25,000 for a 24-hour period, if county commissioners approve a proposal that will be before them later this month. That proposal also includes a $15 fee on each ticket sold that would go to the county to maintain the venue.

Talk of building a performing arts center, a conference center and a mixed-use development on some of the 435 acres adjacent to the amphitheater have largely fallen by the wayside. Some of the land in the area is an inert landfill, and Anderson said the county’s development authority did not believe there was much opportunity to build in the area.

“The focus is more on running an entertainment venue for the benefit of Fulton County citizens in the near term as opposed to a larger economic development effort,” he said.

Anderson said he expects fewer than 20 events a year for the next two years, plus possible community events like outdoor movies; there are currently three concerts scheduled for the amphitheater including a May 4 music festival.

“We’re simply renting a facility,” Anderson said. “I think we have a clear path forward. There’s adequate demand.”

In the years after Wolf Creek first opened, it had trouble booking shows and selling tickets, but has since found its stride and has been profitable since 2013. The amphitheater, which is similar in size to Chastain, is about 10 miles west of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The nearest similar venue is Lakewood, which seats 20,000 people.

“I think it made sense,” Anderson said of Wolf Creek’s construction. “I think it has served a useful purpose.”

The story so far

Fulton County conducted an audit of the Wolf Creek Amphitheater that in November 2016 showed more than two dozen problems with the facility. The county decided to get out of the entertainment business, and fired the employees there. It agreed to a 10-year contract with venue operator and concert promoter Live Nation in 2017. Since then, ticket sales have slowed and the county did not get as much money as it anticipated. It canceled the contract in January, paying a $110,000 termination fee.