When Harry Shapiro came to Charlotte from New York City two years ago, he was looking for a new home for his tattoo and biker magazine Skin & Ink—some place that would have a big-city entertainment feel like you can find in the Big Apple. The Queen City soared on his list of prospects when he walked into the NC Music Factory.
“This is it,” he said. “This is the spot!”
That instant emotional response is common among prospective tenants looking at the Charlotte venue for the first time. As a result, NC Music Factory office space is fully sold out, and its entertainment space attracts big-name tenants like The Fillmore, Wet Willie’s and Butter NC (run by the same innovators who made them sensations in New York and Las Vegas).
At 210,000 square feet, with another 20,000 under construction, NC Music Factory boasts Butter NC, a high-end nightclub that attracts high-spending celebrities, Small Bar, a dive bar where folks can wear flip-flops and buy $1.50 beers, and Halo, a hip and happening nightspot with an edgy atmosphere.
For lunch and dinner, visitors choose from Osso, a lusciously designed Italian restaurant, The Saloon with down-home pub eatery, VBGB Beer Garden with 30 craft beers and brats, or locally inspired fare at Bask where the Johnson & Wales-trained chef offers a constantly changing menu. There is even Mattie’s Diner, an original New Jersey 24-hour diner relocated to the NC Music Factory.
Combined with live entertainment venues including The Fillmore, TWC Uptown Amphitheatre, and the Comedy Zone, plus Silver Hammer Studios housed across the street, the district delivers a powerful multi-purpose punch with something for everyone.
Filming of parts of The Hunger Games and hosting an episode of The Bachelorette barely make a ripple in the constant flurry of activity at the Factory, which includes the comings and goings of NW School of the Arts students (many of whom also apprentice in Richard Lazes’ onsite art gallery), nightlife and after work special events around the Fountain Plaza, and practice jams by any of the property’s several band tenants.
NC Music Factory represents yet another success for developers Noah Lazes and his father Richard Lazes. The two have been 50/50 partners in a long string of entertainment and restaurant ventures around the world. The NC Music Factory concept was founded on principles derived from their work in other highly successful entertainment districts including the French Quarter in New Orleans and Miami’s South Beach.
“What these districts have in common,” says Noah, “is they are a little off the beaten path, not in the center of the city but just slightly off-center, often right up against an inner belt. Usually they’re in older buildings with ground level access and some outdoor space—the more outdoor space the better.”
The off-center location allows for easier access and parking and attracts a wider array of traffic. Older buildings provide an ambience that is impossible to recreate in new construction. Ground level access encourages foot traffic and also keeps CAM (common area maintenance) charges low for tenants, removing the need for expensive common equipment like escalators and elevators.
The formula translates to a venue that attracts movie stars, athletes and other celebrities from around the world who think, as Harry Shapiro did when he saw the NC Music Factory, “This is it!”
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Richard Lazes was living in a modest area of West Virginia at the time of Noah’s birth, working as a carpenter, remodeling kitchens to make ends meet.
“I learned the value of hard work,” says Richard, who discovered he a natural knack for solving problems in inventive ways. “I was diligent and disciplined and learned that not every project is a success, but if you stay in there and you believe in it, you can make it a success.”
Those qualities, combined with ambition and a wide-ranging mind, eventually led him to New Orleans where he began taking gigs as a concert promoter and then broadened to other promotional endeavors. His demonstrated success brought new business opportunities. So, when a friend approached him with a design for a digital oil pipe thread gauge, he immediately recognized its potential and promoted it to oil companies, quickly building a highly successful and profitable business around it.
The thread gauge success opened more doors for Richard in the oil industry, where he continued to invent and market new products, developing over a dozen patented products including AutoBoom, an oil containment device used in 45 countries for cleanup efforts after ocean oil spills. His knack for developing profitable partnerships multiplied the benefits of his efforts.
The income from Richard’s entrepreneurial efforts allowed him to continue pursuing other opportunities that interested him. In addition to concert promotions, Richard has become an accomplished artist with a body of sculpture and other art forms shown in galleries all over the United States.
“My eclectic career is rather unusual,” admits Richard, “But in general, business is business and you follow the same principles regardless.”
Those business principles formed a significant portion of the upbringing he offered his son Noah, who recalls keenly how open his father was about risk, reward and the financial ins and outs of business. As a result, Noah was imbued from a young age with a strong sense of what it takes to be successful.
When Noah began looking at colleges, his first thought was that he would become a civil engineer. He was good at math, had a bit of his father’s knack for invention, and it seemed like a logical path. Among his choices was UNC Charlotte, where he met with the Engineering School’s Dean Smith.
Smith asked a question that would change Noah’s life—and initiate his lifelong commitment to Charlotte: “Tell me something,” Smith said, “Do you really want to be an engineer? Or is there something else that you would rather be doing?”
Noah admitted that he wanted to be an entrepreneur like his father. Smith encouraged him to think about his college plan in that light. “Charlotte’s going to be a real city,” he said. “If you want to be where the entrepreneurial spirit and energy is, Charlotte’s the place for you.”
Coming of Age
Noah worked in the food and beverage industry throughout his tenure at UNC Charlotte. In his senior year, when the Charlotte Chamber turned Tryon Street into a weekend-long entertainment district called “The Street of Champions,” Noah took his savings with a matching investment from father, and opened a temporary version of the well-loved Fat Tuesday Restaurant that had closed down the previous year.
The Street of Champions weekend was an “out of the ballpark” success for Noah, whose Fat Tuesday venue grossed more than all the other venues combined.
The success was so great that the Fat Tuesday franchisor asked him to re-open the permanent venue in the restaurant’s old location. The deal called for a $100,000 investment, a fraction of what it would cost to start a restaurant from scratch, and just the amount Noah and Richard had in hand after the successful Street of Champions weekend. Thanks to the minimal investment, Fat Tuesday was soon profitable for Noah and Richard.
Basking in the enormous success of Fat Tuesday, Noah and Richard rolled their earnings into a new venture at City Fair in 1993. He was about to learn the most significant lesson of entrepreneurialism: failure. He converted the food court into a concert hall at night, with a temporary stage, lighting trusses, sound system, and roll-down murals to cover the food vendor stalls.
He called it World Mardi Gras and booked an entire year of big-name music acts out of New Orleans. The venue costs were low, only $375 a night, thanks to Noah’s inventive use of the space, and with their only significant investment in the bands, Noah figured he would be multiplying their money in no time.
But World Mardi Gras taught Noah a hard lesson—how it feels to lose $10,000 in a single night and, know that you will be losing another $10,000 week after week for the rest of the year. Turns out that Noah was ahead of the times.
“Charlotte was not a sophisticated music market at that point,” he explains. “Night after night people came to the door saying, ‘The Radiators? Who’s that?’ ‘The Neville Brothers? Never heard of them.’ And no one wanted to pay $10 a head for a band they’d never heard of.”
Noah turned to his father partly for sympathy and partly for advice, and distinctly recalls Richard’s unexpected response: “I’ll give you every dollar you’ve got in the deal—every dollar—if you want to go take your shot at being an engineer and working for somebody else.”
“Or,” continued his father, “you can honor your commitments, play the rest of these out, and then figure out how to make it work. Business ain’t easy. Nobody ever said it was easy.”
So Noah played out the year, and figured out the music that the Charlotte market was willing to pay for—taking his cue from the bands that were getting played on the local radio stations. Noah booked a new year of acts, and with his low overhead, it did not take long to turn it around and become profitable.
World Mardi Gras had another lesson in hand for Noah: The rewards of sticking with it. Richard had trained Noah to constantly seek beneficial partnership opportunities because “50 percent of $20 is a heck of a lot more than 100 percent of $5.” Partnership is a big part of every Lazes project, and, as it turned out, one of their biggest partnership opportunities arose out of the World Mardi Gras adventure.
Noah explains that executives at Simon, the S&P 100 company that is the world’s largest real estate company, developers of Mall of the Americas and also SouthPark Mall, had seen the World Mardi Gras and were fascinated by his inventive use of the space.
They asked if he could do something similar for a new project they had in mind—they wanted a live music venue and food court in a new mall in Indianapolis called Circle Center.
After that successful completion, they offered him an opportunity to own and operate five entertainment venues and 50,000 square feet in another new mall with very minimal capital investment.
Noah credits that deal, and the Lazes partners’ ability to keep Simon happy, with jump-starting their rise to prominence in the food, beverage and entertainment industry. With Simon on their roster of satisfied landlords, nearly everyone wanted their services, and were paying for the privilege. Their various operating entities are referred to as ARK Group (yes, Noah’s choice!) and operate out of Charlotte.
The father and son team and other partners in ARK Group have been involved in numerous ventures including deals with celebrities like Prince, who shut down his nightclubs in South Beach allowing the Lazes partners to scoop them up and re-open them; Michael Waltrip, who had the Lazes partners help him build the huge interactive NASCAR shop in Cornelius; and big entertainment names like Live Nation and HBO.
NC Music Factory
“Working with Noah is a challenge,” admits Richard. “He’s fastidious, detail-oriented, and sometimes we bump heads. Nevertheless, the good outweighs the bad. We also share common goals and inspiration, and what distinguishes us from a lot of other developers is that we are long-term goal-oriented.”
Long-term goal orientation was critical for Richard and Noah when, in 2000, they purchased a large tract of land just inside the I-277 loop. A dilapidated old textile mill on the vacant property had once employed a few hundred people. The hardwood floors and exposed pipes were long abandoned and access to the sprawling building was limited by crisscrossing railroads and private property lines.
Twelve years and millions in investment later, the same complex—NC Music Factory—employs over a thousand people and entertains many thousands more, while also paying taxes on its estimated value of several tens of millions of dollars.
But when ARK Group purchased it, many people had a hard time believing the transformation could be possible. Walking through the undeveloped basement area (designated for the Mega Club LABEL to open in late summer), it’s easy to see why. The damp smell of hundred-year-old must infuses the air, gritty gravel crunches on the bare concrete floor, and ugly metal posts break the space into a hundred dreary sections. Five years ago, the entire property looked this way.
The building itself wasn’t even the biggest challenge. In order to make the Factory viable, it would need to be accessible from Graham Street, right off I-277. That access required negotiation with every stakeholder in the surrounding area: the city, county and federal governments; Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads; Arthur Daniel Midland (whose historic building would require demolition); Duke Power; and five private property owners. It was six years in the works.
Once the road was complete and construction crews moved in, rehab proceeded at a swift pace. The NC Music Factory debuted with a big bash concert in June 2009.
All venues in the Factory are constantly improved and upgraded, and new space renovated to grow the footprint. A covered patio is under construction for The Saloon, and LABEL in the once-dank basement will soon be transformed into a marquee venue never experienced before in Charlotte with lights, sound and video rivaling the best operations in major A markets.
Construction crews currently are hollowing out the floor and removing pillars to clear room for the two-story, 16,000 square foot nightclub that will feature a 28-foot-wide video wall and elevated performance stage.
Not Yet Finished
Throughout their careers, Noah and Richard have seen the poshest spots in the biggest cities. Both are convinced that Charlotte is “The spot.” Richard describes Charlotte as a “city on the cusp of greatness,” and both men have faith in—and commitment to—its growing arts and business environment.
The NC Music Factory entertainment district with restaurants, pubs and clubs; a 2,000 capacity indoor live music venue and 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater; office rentals and residential condominiums; as well as studios, parking and the 1930s Mattie’s Diner, is situated on approximately nine acres of what Noah and Richard are marketing as Uptown Village.
The property still has another 21 acres available for development inside the inner loop of Charlotte. Noah says it’s probably one of the only contiguous pieces of land its size available in any large city in the U.S.—and it is accessible by its own 4-lane entry drive and visible with over a half mile of road frontage from Charlotte’s most heavily travelled Interstate 77.
ARK Group plans an apartment complex and a hotel, both with stunning skyline views, plus 60,000 square feet of banquet room with ready access to Silver Hammer Studios. For the remaining acreage, they would like to attract a big name corporate campus, like Apple or Google, to Charlotte.
If all goes according to plan, that company will see all that the NC Music Factory has to offer and agree with Noah and Richard: “This is it. This is the spot!”