Can Lake County steal some thunder from Chicago and Milwaukee for big-time musical acts?
Libertyville promoter Mark Khayat is eager to find out with the debut Saturday of Austin's Fuel Arena, which for most of the year is the cavernous expo hall and main building at the Lake County Fairgrounds.
"This is a huge test," said Khayat, owner of Austin's Saloon & Eatery in Libertyville. The Fuel Room there can accommodate about 700 and for years has been a well-known spot for live music.
Last year, Khayat upped the ante by signing a five-year agreement with the Lake County Fair Association for exclusive entertainment rights at the fairgrounds at Peterson and Midlothian roads in Grayslake.
Khayat said he was looking for a noncontroversial show with broad appeal, and he targeted country music as the genre to get the ball rolling. He landed the Grammy-nominated duo Big & Rich with special guest Cowboy Troy for the first performance. Bella Cain is the opening act.
"You don't have to be a country person to love these guys," Khayat said.
Under the arrangement, Khayat pays the fair association a flat fee per event and a percentage of the concessions. He is responsible for all aspects of the show, including ticket sales and security.
How the concert fares is also of interest to fair officials. They are trying to stretch the appeal of the facilities, which opened in 2009 after more than a half century at routes 120 and 45.
"We want people to think of it as a destination for entertainment in Lake County," said Sheri Vyfvinkel, business manager. "It's diversifying us."
The expo hall is booked most weekends with a variety of shows and events but not musical acts. In that regard, the fair doesn't have the contacts to secure big names or the means to promote them, said Kelli Kepler-Yarc, president of the committee that oversees day-to-day operations and non-fair-related activities.
"We'd love to see something outside in our courtyard area," she said.
That may come at some point, but getting the first show together hasn't been easy, according to Khayat.
"We went down there (Nashville) basically blind and made our case. It took three trips to get one show and all eyes are on us," he said. Khayat, through Fuel Inc., books bands in other states and has a track record in that regard. But there also was "a little overpayment involved" with Big & Rich, he acknowledged.
He claimed those who want to keep country acts in Chicago have blocked his efforts, and agents are suspicious of how their clients will be represented at an untested venue. A lot hinges on a good experience Saturday.
"It can open up a lot of doors," said Greg Kalble, Khayat's production manager.
Transforming the airplane hangar-like feel of the high-ceiling, 65,000-square-foot expo center for a concert will be a key.
"That's going to be interesting, too, to see how they utilize that space," Vyfvinkel said.
While the indoor capacity can be adjusted to accommodate as many as 8,000, this first effort likely will be in the 2,000 to 3,000 range, Khayat said. The decor will feature picnic tables for general admission seating and a bar in the middle of the room.
"It's going to feel like a big country bar," he said. Tickets are $25, with a half-hour early sneak peek for $35. A 300-seat VIP/premium section between the stage and the barricade costs $85.
Khayat knows he is competing against two of the biggest music markets in the U.S. in Chicago and Milwaukee, but maintains the country audience can be served well in a venue situated between the two big cities.
"The major market for country is here," says Khayat, who in 2009 arranged a Dirks Bentley concert at the Libertyville Sports Complex. "Let's bring country back to the country."