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Raleigh rockonomics: Keep the beat

Why Raleigh's sleek new downtown should embrace a music scene on the verge


Kings music club in Raleigh - PHOTO BY NATALIE ROSS
From the dust of the imploded convention center and the concrete trenches along Fayetteville Street Mall, the new downtown Raleigh is slowly rising, a landscape of sleek mixed-use buildings, luxury condos, high-rise offices and ground-floor retail with parking decks hidden behind a row of modern storefronts. City planners hope the $1.5 billion of public and private investment will fill the sidewalks with people, people who stick around after dark.

But before the bulldozers ever got started, Kings, the Lincoln Theatre, Slim's, Berkeley Cafe, The Pour House and a handful of other live-music venues began luring people to downtown Raleigh. A few nights a week, a few hundred folks a night are willing to brave otherwise unpopulated city streets, punitive parking and (lately) construction rubble to see a good show. Raleigh's live-music venues draw hundreds of thousands of people a year.

Rock clubs aren't part of conventional city planning, but they should be, even in conservative Raleigh. Economically and culturally, these clubs power the engine of the urban culture the city says it wants to create. And the clubs in Raleigh are contributing to a Triangle-wide music scene that's one of the most innovative and successful in the country. Several of these clubs have been around for more than five years, a remarkable accomplishment for small businesses operating on slim margins. They contributed early on to the rebirth of downtown, without taxpayer-funded financial incentive packages or big promotion budgets.

While there are a few individuals working in official capacities who understand the potential of the city's small-scale music industry to make the downtown venture wildly successful, city policies still treat downtown as a place that's open Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Already successful rock clubs stand to gain once the new downtown is up and running, but without the deliberate and active support of city leaders, those clubs face an uncertain future that will put Raleigh's music scene to the test.

At about 9 p.m. on Friday night, Rob Farris was in the middle of a sound check when things started to go wrong. The owner of the Raleigh Music Hall (the new incarnation of Martin Street Music Hall) was getting ready for a show by Tinsley Ellis, a guitar player with the big-time band Widespread Panic. Farris had hired someone to hand out 200 flyers at the April 21 Widespread Panic show at the Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek with directions to Raleigh Music Hall for the after-show show. The directions said to take Salisbury Street, but Salisbury Street had been completely closed at 8 p.m. Nobody warned Farris.

Soon his voicemail was full of calls from people who couldn't find their way to the club. The show didn't go on. "I lost $1,500 on Friday night," Farris says. "That's not money I didn't make. That's money I paid the band out of my pocket."

The Raleigh Music Hall holds about 300 people and hosts touring acts and popular local talent like Nathan Asher and the Infantry. It's probably the hardest hit of any live music venue by the ongoing construction downtown--there's literally a ditch and a pile of rubble outside its front door. The city shut off the street lights, so Farris bought lights to shine out to the street from inside the club to give some sign of life from the otherwise dark, unwelcoming street.

Despite his regular conversations with the construction foremen and his frequent complaints to city government, Farris says he can't get anyone to give him warning about when streets and sidewalks will close. Nor can he convince anyone in city government overseeing the construction to work with him as a small business owner. A lot of the street closings happen at night and on weekends, when most downtown businesses are closed. But Friday night is to a rock club what the lunch rush is to a restaurant. And it's worse for clubs than it is for bars, because clubs depend on tightly orchestrated events to draw crowds. "I have three nights to make money," Farris says. "Everyone else has seven. I have three."

Raleigh Music Hall on Martin Street - DEREK ANDERSON
While Farris's predicament is both extreme and temporary, it demonstrates a deeper problem with the way the city is approaching its own redevelopment. While Raleigh spends millions to make its city center a place people want to be at night, it's literally putting up barricades to keep out the ones who are willing to come now. What does that say about the consideration city leaders have given to what draws those people in the first place?

"Like any other downtown revitalization, it seems like the core people who really established the downtown economy are now the ones who are struggling to stay in it," says product designer Aly Khalifa, whose company Gamil Design is based downtown. "It seems like those people aren't really being planned for. It's places like Kings and the Berkeley Cafe who have done such a great job of establishing character and a scene and making the creative economy, at least the music section of the scene, thrive."

Khalifa is part of DesignBox, a group of artists, designers and other creative professionals who are planning a conference this fall to address how the city can more actively support its creative culture (see www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A30023 ). Part of that conference will include a small music festival at local clubs. "We're not doing much, we're just trying to coordinate a local scene and get some buzz going so the clubs feel like they're part of something and that the city is supporting them--well, the city isn't exactly, but we are." Khalifa bemoans the fact that economic development types often ignore the small businesses that already exist and focus instead on luring big companies, "the SUVs of downtown development," he says, "when what we need are some Vespas and some Smart cars."

At the south end of town are eight acres of city- and county-owned land being sold to private developers in order to create a cultural and entertainment district, which would connect the new $215 million convention center to the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, home to the symphony, the ballet and touring Broadway shows. The largest sale so far has been a 1.8-acre parcel at Fayetteville and Wilmington streets where TMC Development plans to build a $130 million office, retail and residential complex with a 20-story tower and a 14-story tower and, hopefully, a movie theater on the ground floor. Greg Hatem's Empire Properties plans to develop a boutique hotel with an upscale restaurant on the ground floor and a rooftop pool and bar.

The south end is also home to Kings, a rock club full of arcade games, pool tables and just enough style to keep it from being a dive. Kings rivals the Cat's Cradle as the best rock venue in the Triangle. With a capacity of about 200, it draws some of the most interesting touring indie bands and hosts lots of local talent. Its "Great Cover Up" night invites local bands playing the part of their all-time favorite acts. The weekly "Neu Romance" DJ night bridges dance and rock genres. Film screenings bring together Super-8 geeks and political junkies alike.

Kings sits on a small block of old, single-story brick buildings that look like they're floating in an angry gray sea of construction. Next door to the venue is Poole's, an artsy diner, and on the other side is a vacant, county-owned building.

"I think the wheels are in motion that will drive us out," Kings' co-owner Stephen Popson says, "mainly because our location is ground zero for the convention center." The county, which already owns part of the block, could decide to take over the rest for its own expansion--it's planning a new courthouse and parking deck nearby. Beyond that, the rise in property taxes is Popson's biggest concern. Increasing the property values downtown is part of the goal of all this, after all, and that's great for increasing city revenue. But it's not good for places like Kings.

Popson played bass for Polvo, a highly influential indie rock band in the early to mid-'90s that remains one of the Triangle's most nationally recognized acts. He and Ben Barwick (of The Ashley Stove) and Paul Siler (of Birds of Avalon) opened Kings in 1999. In fact, the club was one of the first steps the city made toward breathing life into this part of town.

"The reason Kings exists where it is is because, in order to bring business downtown, they relaxed all the permits," Popson says. "There were no noise ordinance restrictions, no parking restrictions. That made it easy for us to get in there and open a rock club. It didn't cost the city any money, and it was a good step."

There are plans to build about 400 residential units in the neighborhood, many of them well outside the price range of Kings' clientele. Popson's doesn't think empty nesters living in $600,000 condos will be thrilled about having a rock club for a neighbor. Sure, people move downtown knowing it's an urban environment. But once they're there, he says, "they're not going to want to live next to dirty rock clubs and beer bottles and hootin' and hollerin' at 2 in the morning. But that's what a downtown place should be. I do think a downtown should be lively and noisy at night. Obviously you don't want drunk drivers and people pissing everywhere. But you want a bustling nightlife, and with a bustling nightlife come these issues."

Another club that's been around almost as long is Slim's, which opened seven years ago. "When we first came down here, there were bars on the windows around here and nobody wanted to come down here," says Mikey Ross, manager at Slim's. Today the club has an aura of local rock history about it, exemplified by the unannounced reunion show that Ryan Adams and Caitlyn Cary played here after Adams' performance at the Meymandi Concert Hall last June.

Inside Slim's, red lights illuminate a collection of album covers along the wall. A small raised stage near the back of the shotgun-style space hosts the band, and an upstairs loft has pool tables and vinyl booths. With a capacity of only 99, the place is intended to be a kind of starter venue for local talent, Ross says. "We decided that we wanted to be a place that nurtures new, local, original music. So we don't charge anything to get in and we pay the bands a flat fee. That way there's a place they can come with their new project."

Ross says the city has a "schizophrenic" attitude toward downtown venues. "The problem with the city of Raleigh is that it's really hard for them to change on an integral level," Ross says. "They have to nurture a part of society that hasn't been nurtured by them in the past." He's got some specific ideas to start with: Why not allow parking on both sides of one-way streets after dark? Why not get rid of the nighttime noise ordinance in the areas where no one lives? How about scrapping the ordinance that forbids posting flyers for shows? Clubs don't need government handouts, they just need some of the barriers taken away.

Not everybody in Raleigh cares about a little place like Slim's, of course. To some, a music club is just a noisy bar. But there's a good reason why the city as a whole should care, Ross says: Because the music scene is so damn good here.

"What people don't realize about Raleigh and the Triangle" Ross says, "and the thing I like about it is, if your band sounds like somebody else, nobody will come and see you. And so that ends up creating an original music environment. If you go to L.A., you're going to find a lot of bands that sound like what's been on the radio for a week. People from Los Angeles and New York and London come to this area specifically to harvest bands and to hear what the next new sound is going to be.

"And so I think it's important for Raleigh to understand that by encouraging this original music and making it easier for musicians to do that, they're going to win in the end, culturally, because they'll be looked to by an even larger market as a destination," Ross says. "Austin, Texas, has exploded because people who love music will fly from all over the world just to go there for the weekend."

Austin's music scene is legendary, thanks in part to South By Southwest, a weeklong festival of live shows spread across large and small venues all over the city. But SXSW, as it's known, is the culmination of years of labor and love heaped on local talent by the city's leaders. In 1991, the city council voted to make Austin's official slogan "Live Music Capital of the World." The convention and visitors bureau started pushing the music scene hard. A city-commissioned study on the role of music in the Austin economy found that live music generated more than $616 million in economic activity every year. Austin even has a city staff person whose job is to nurture the local music business (see "Austin," below). Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida made Austin the prime example of a "creative center" in his book, which studied the connection between a thriving music scene and the development of technology and 21st-century jobs.

Granted, Austin is twice the size of Raleigh. But add the populations of Durham and Chapel Hill (not to mention Carrboro, Cary, Hillsborough and other smaller communities) and it's more than comparable. Like Austin, the Triangle has an extremely diverse and active music scene with a national reputation. The Triangle also rated highly on Richard Florida's "creative centers" list. Infrastructure is the big problem in a place this spread out. Downtown Raleigh is unique in that it has at least a dozen good venues within walking distance of each other.

Some city officials get it. One of Slim's regulars is a guy named Dan Douglas. Childless, unmarried, 40 years old, Douglas lives in the downtown neighborhood of Boylan Heights, bikes to work at his office on Fayetteville Street, and goes out to hear music whenever he gets a chance. "I love music, and I have a pretty young staff that's into music. They tell me what's going on with new bands. I always ask them, 'Where did you see them? How many people were there?'"

Douglas is director of the Raleigh Urban Design Center, part of the city's planning department. So he knows a lot about what downtown Raleigh's going to look like in five years, and he says the viability of live music "figures in tremendously" as the city's making its plans. "We're trying to position the south end of downtown, which is where the Lincoln and Kings are, as the cultural and entertainment district." The Progress Energy Center for the Arts, which hosts an average of three performances a day and brings in 750,000 people per year, is there. Douglas says he and Roger Krupa, director of the Raleigh Convention Center, want the city's activities to build on that success and on the smaller-scale live music culture that's already going strong.

"Even the little bars that aren't known for live music are starting to get into the act because people like it," Douglas says. "You can come downtown and see an Irish band, a bluegrass band and a punk band all in walking distance."

Believe it or not, the home of the ballet and the symphony is booking more and more rock shows--35 in 2005, up from 10 the year before. House of Blues, Deep South Entertainment and Cat's Cradle owner Frank Heath have all been booking bands at the Progress Energy Center's venues.

The city itself isn't in the music business for the most part, but it does sponsor big outdoor events in Moore Square, including First Night, the annual Artsplosure festival in the spring and the Bud Light Downtown Live concert series, a series of free outdoor shows by nationally known touring bands who perform on summer evenings. The Violent Femmes show last July drew about 14,000 people.

Part of the plan for the south end is a permanent home for that series, which is programmed by Deep South. "Anyone who wants to come and do a big outdoor concert downtown," Douglas explains, "we're a little bit hampered because we have the two great squares, but they have all the trees and grass so it's hard to maintain and hard to set up an outdoor venue there. So we said, since we're not going to use this block immediately for the convention center, let's position that as our outdoor festival site." The city block just west of the new convention center, bordered by Cabarrus, McDowell, Lenoir and Dawson streets, has a natural bowl shape, with a center 30 feet below street level, meaning it would be cheap and easy to convert to an outdoor festival site for summer shows (while convention trucks could park there the rest of the year). The City Council has not yet funded the creation of the venue, but it won't cost much. Smaller venues in the area could end up benefiting from the festival site, Douglas says, because outdoor concerts shut down by 11 p.m. and concertgoers will move on to other venues clustered in the area.

Douglas has a reputation among downtown club owners as a guy who listens to their concerns and tries to help if he can. "He has a good aesthetic sense of the whole city plan," says Popson. "He sees some of those things I wish that people in charge were looking at. Dan really knows and understands it, what Raleigh is about."

The Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a sort of chamber of commerce for downtown businesses, has also helped out the clubs on some specific issues. Take the trash, for instance: Last year when the city planned to increase the fee businesses paid for trash pickup, Kristopher Larson, deputy director of DRA, let downtown businesses know about the situation. Larson led the creation of an alternative "pay-as-you-throw" system of trash pickup, to be coupled with a recycling program for commercial establishments, a policy that's fairer to businesses and better for the environment.

"We provide a voice for downtown," Larson says. "When there's a policy decision that's going to be affecting our constituency, we want to make sure that downtown is represented holistically." Rock clubs are one very small part of the DRA's constituency, but Lawson says they're important. "We wouldn't be the same downtown without our live music venues."

"I look at Raleigh," says Douglas, "and I see the kernel of a really great music scene developing. It's always been good. We're almost there. We just need someone to sort of own it and take it to the next level. And I'm always thinking, What can we do to help that? How can we better market it and strengthen it?" Douglas recognizes that this is not his job. "I'm just one guy and it's not really my responsibility, but I just see a tremendous potential for it to go to the next level."

Taking advantage of that potential means taking risks, and right now the only people taking those risks are the clubs. For their trouble, they get taxes, red tape and not much else.

In order to meet new fire code requirements, Lincoln Theatre, an old movie house, recently had to install a new water main along with a hydrant out front, and they're in the process of installing an indoor sprinkler system. They were also required to add a set of transformers to meet electrical safety requirements. "Up-fitting a 1939 building with today's code as far as fire protection is expensive," says co-owner Pat Dickenson.

The 475-capacity venue is also working on building a balcony to expand its capacity by another 250 to 300 people, which would mean it could draw larger touring shows. And the owners hope to take advantage of one of the few financial incentives out there for downtown businesses, a $5,000 matching grant for facade improvements. "There's money available from the city for certain things," Dickenson says, "but that's to make the city look good. It's not like they're going up to live entertainment venues and saying, 'Hey, what can we do to help you guys?'"

Even with all that investment, there's no telling what will happen. "Nobody's really got a safe bet from a longevity standpoint," Dickenson says. "Somebody could come in next week and buy the block we're in, start the process of condemnation, and we would have to fight it."

By the way, Dickenson estimates the Lincoln's indoor shows and outdoor events drew more than 50,000 people to downtown Raleigh last year. If Raleigh were to commission a study like the one Austin did, perhaps they could tell us just how much money 50,000 people can generate in economic activity, not just for the Lincoln but for other businesses in the area, too. (The Downtown Raleigh Alliance published a study in 2003 on what visitors to downtown Raleigh do. While it showed encouraging results, such as high marks for the quality and variety of arts and cultural activities, live music was addressed only under that wider category.)

Then there are the taxes. To sell beer and wine, an establishment must pay $800 to the Alcohol Board of Control for permits to do so, then renew it annually for $400. Want to sell mixed drinks? That's $1,000 up front and $750 to renew. Then there's the additional tax bars pay per bottle of spirits, between $2 and $7 per bottle, and the sales tax for each drink sold. There's also an annual amplified entertainment permit (which even bars with stereos pay), a privilege license (which every business pays) and a state amusement tax of 3 percent on door charges, which some club owners don't even know about.

It's easy to levy taxes on people whose voices aren't very loud. In order to be heard, the local music industry will need political advocates who can push back on bad policy.

Yhe Supper Clubb, a Caribbean restaurant and nightclub in North Raleigh, has really been pissing off its neighbors. Complaints of drunk people making noise late at night and patrons parking on neighborhood streets have been filling the inboxes of Raleigh city council members lately. Jessie Taliaferro, who represents the district where The Supper Clubb is located, put forward a motion last month to allow the city to revoke the amplified entertainment permit of any establishment after a single report of a serious crime, whether inside or in the parking lot. Cooler heads prevailed, and the council voted down that proposal. The city's Law and Public Safety Committee is considering whether to strengthen public nuisance laws.

Another recent incident has intensified the situation. On April 22, a man was shot and killed in front of Five Star Restaurant on Hargett Street in the warehouse district downtown. The alleged shooter had reportedly been hitting on the man's girlfriend, which led to an argument that got settled at 2 a.m. as everyone left the restaurant.

The fact that neither of these places is a dedicated live music venue won't make much difference if the city institutes a one-strike-you're-out policy on amplified entertainment permits.

Luckily, there's at least one city council member who enjoys going out and hearing live music--a Republican lawyer who loves The Pour House. Philip Isley, chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee, goes out to hear shows about five or six nights a month. He says The Supper Clubb is part of a larger set of problems in the Capital Boulevard area of north Raleigh. "I don't think we're trying to shut down any club," he says.

Does Raleigh want clubs like Kings to stay around? Well, ask a city official and they'll surely tell you that nobody wants to run them out. But whether the city's leadership is willing to do what it takes to keep those places alive is another question.

Popson wishes local leaders had spent more time and energy talking to existing small businesses before making their grand plans for a new downtown. "I think the convention center will be nice, and they're slowly starting get the more general community concept. But I think it's a little late in the planning. The powers that be saw that as the golden egg that would solve a lot of problems." It would have helped, he said, to set aside one-half of 1 percent of the budget for the $215 million convention center to offset the impact of construction on those existing businesses. After all, existing businesses paid the taxes that are funding the convention center in the first place. "More than likely, what we've been paying for is going to push us out of business."

"I'm not looking for a handout from the government," Popson says. "The nature of business is that you adapt or you die. Regardless if Kings is around in the next 10 years, the most important thing is, is the environment conducive to having someone else come in and replace it? The direction now is no."

It's easy to overlook the little things, especially where there are plenty of big things--and big money--jockeying for attention. But if Raleigh ignores its small music clubs, it will miss a great opportunity. If the city takes the lead and embraces its music culture through proactive policy and wider recognition, the music scene will blossom and downtown will, in a word, rock.

Keeping the beat...

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