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Downtown dirge

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It makes my blood boil.

We're supposed to get all excited about these big-ticket projects that are going to bring back our cities' downtowns—the $221 million (and rising) convention center in Raleigh and the $44 million performing arts center in Durham (it's too soon to start calculating the cost overruns yet).

But, when downtown venues that create community, nurture artists and are fun and affordable for the people who live here—people who don't have the $100 for a ticket to see The Lion King, as opposed to tourists who will be visiting the convention center and staying at the new Marriott (taxpayer subsidy: $20 million)—well, sorry, it's just the economics of the marketplace.

That's what Tracey Lovejoy of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance had to say about the sad news of the closing of Kings Barcade, a great bar and music club that's in the way of a parking lot for the convention center (see our story about its final shows).

"Of course we want places like [Kings] downtown," Lovejoy told The N&O. "But everything comes down to money."

"Of course" they do. Liars. Like hell they do. If they wanted to keep places like that, they'd do something about it. Sure, everything comes down to money. And if a Marriott can't make enough, we'll just give it to them.

How do you think that makes people like Molly Miller feel? Miller owns Bickett Gallery near Five Points, one of the epicenters of the Raleigh arts community's nightlife. She announced last week that she's shutting down, too (see Scan; it's a bad week for club obits). Her problems go back to the summer of 2003, when she tried to stage an ambitious festival of art, film and music and negotiated with the city until the day before it was scheduled to start, when they finally told her she couldn't get an outdoor music permit.

Miller points out that cities were happy to endure artists and musicians when downtown properties were empty, bringing the first sparks of life. But the moment they started appreciating, forget about it.

We've sung this song before. Fiona Morgan foreshadowed the death of Kings in her story "Raleigh Rockonomics" in these pages on May 3, 2006, which pointed out the successes of cities like Austin, which embraces and encourages its music scene. She also has chronicled the anger of Durham's downtown arts community at the oligarchic decision to build a performing arts center that no one else wanted.

Our leaders have consistently failed to recognize the value of our music industry and artistic communities to sustaining lively downtowns. The rest of the country aspires to a music scene as vibrant as ours, but it struggles and gets no public support. Instead, we pour millions into ideas that are tired and banal.

As Miller says, "Everything comes down to money. But there's something to be said for energy, too—especially if creative vitality is to be part of the future."

Not ours, it seems.

Correction (April 4, 2007): The quotation "Everything comes down to money. But there's something to be said for energy, too—especially if creative vitality is to be part of the future" was not from Molly Miller but was from David Menconi in his farewell story about Kings in The News & Observer.

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