Cunningham to manage Pacers-owned facility
The owner of the Indiana Pacers has tabbed local restaurateur Mike Cunningham to operate the culinary and entertainment facility now under construction next to Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
To be named Commission Row, the $20 million project from Pacers Sports & Entertainment owner Herb Simon is set to feature an upscale restaurant, a basement-level speakeasy-style tavern and a private event space, all of which would be managed by Indianapolis-based Cunningham Restaurant Group.
The 30,000-square-foot building is being developed on a former surface parking lot between the arena and an existing four-story building at the southwest corner of Delaware and Maryland streets. It will be directly east of the adjoining 1.5-acre Bicentennial Unity Plaza currently under construction.
“For us, this is the right partner at the right time,” Rick Fuson, president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, told IBJ. “We like Cunningham Restaurant Group a lot, and we think they’re going to do great things here. And to have somebody like this who knows not only the food business, but the event business—it’s critical, because it means that we’re not having to try and reinvent the wheel.”
Founded 25 years ago by Mike Cunningham, CRG operates a portfolio of more than three dozen establishments across 16 eatery concepts, as well as an event center at The Shops at Perry Crossing in Plainfield. In addition to its nearly two dozen restaurants across central Indiana, CRG operates restaurants in Evansville, South Bend and Fort Wayne, as well as in Ohio and Kentucky.
Cunningham said he views the venture as an opportunity to bring CRG into the core of downtown Indianapolis, after many years of operating restaurants in the suburbs and on the edges of downtown, such as Bru Burger and The Livery in the Mass Ave corridor.
“This is going to be quite the landmark restaurant location, given the sheer size, volume and quality of the building,” Cunningham said. “It’s a situation where our vision for the space aligned with that of the Pacers. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a big basketball fan, so I spend a lot of time in the arena as it is. It’ll be great having something so special right next door.”
The Commission Row restaurant will seat about 220 people, with offerings that are expected to include seafood and steak, although a full menu has not yet been finalized. Cunningham said the eatery will also be able to use an upstairs patio space for outdoor dining, although it could also be used as ancillary space for private events.
The event center, called Above at Commission Row, will seat up to 260 people for weddings, corporate parties and other special occasions.
The speakeasy, which will be called Mel’s at Commission Row—in honor of late Pacers co-owner Melvin Simon—will accommodate about 110 people and is expected to offer a more casual, sharable food menu. Cunningham described the ambiance of the tavern as “dark, and kind of sexy,” similar to the members-only The Bemberg concept that opened last year at 608 N. Park Ave.
The three spaces will employ a combined 250 people, Cunningham said.
The original concept for the restaurant was more along the lines of a sports bar, but Cunningham and PSE opted to go a different direction due to the number of similar offerings nearby. Cunningham said CRG worked closely with the Pacers to come up with a new idea that really focuses on meeting the needs of upper-tier ticket buyers, while keeping it accessible to all who might have an interest in dining at the building.
“It’s great to have a partner like [Simon and the Pacers], that can give you everything that you need to be successful,” Cunningham said. “Obviously we’ve done it for ourselves for a long time, but in this case, we’re coming in to operate this thing. So, to partner with Herb and see his vision of what he wants this arena district to be, it’s going to be a legacy project and we’re just thrilled to be involved in it.”
Operating a building so closely tied to Gainbridge Fieldhouse will have its logistical challenges, particularly the restaurant portion. But Cunningham acknowledged it’s also nothing new for many other downtown dining locations that have coped with the same challenges over the years.
“There’s going to be a surge that you’ll tend to have with a concert or game—thousands of people going to the arena, and everyone wants to have dinner at 6 o’clock before the show,” he said. “But other than that, it really comes down to being hospitable and trying to create the best dining experience we possibly can for our guests. We want to make sure the value proposition is met with great energy and enthusiasm. It’s what we enjoy doing.”
Commission Row is expected to open in time for the 2024 NBA All-Star Game at the Fieldhouse in February, when it could receive a lot of attention from visitors and the media. That’s because it’s one of several investments that are being made in that area of downtown by the Simon family.
Another project—a $300 million redevelopment of the former CSX building across Pennsylvania Street from the Fieldhouse—is expected to feature an upscale hotel and hundreds of apartments, with connectivity to the arena.
PSE also bought the former DLZ building at Delaware and Maryland Streets in November 2020 for $8.4 million and renamed it the PSE Building, expanding its office operations there and establishing a temporary box office during renovations.
That building, 147 E. Maryland St., is now home to the company’s marketing, sales and digital staff, as well as meeting spaces for large internal gatherings. Most PSE executive offices and community relations remain in the nearby Ascension St. Vincent Center, 201 Delaware St.
All that investment comes as the Pacers complete a $360 million renovation to the Fieldhouse—$295 million paid for with public funds.
Fuson has said Commission Row is the result of a PSE study of entertainment districts near other sports venues such as Chicago’s Wrigleyville and Milwaukee’s Deer District, in an effort to determine what could be done in Indianapolis.
He said the moves to create what has become a burgeoning entertainment campus in the Wholesale District shows the Simon family’s commitment to the city as a long-term home for its sports franchises. What’s more, he said, it’s a sign that downtown Indianapolis continues to be an important hub for visitors and residents.
“We’re really looking forward to Commission Row opening, because it’s going to be another great asset to downtown,” Fuson said. “We also look forward to a year, or two, or three from now where everyone’s realizing that downtown is really thriving—where people say, ‘It was great that you all believed in downtown.’ I think it’s going to be fantastic.”