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Can Live Music Revitalize College Park?

Hey, it worked for H Street…

Last Friday, WAMU’s Metro Connection included a segment about the revitalization of the H Street Corridor in D.C., and how many attribute its turn around to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel, a live music venue that occupies the site of a former funeral home.

 If you didn’t catch it, here’s a quick run-down of the story:

Once upon a time, H Street NE, was a “ghost town” (legend has it there were even tumbleweeds). It stayed like this for some time, and then the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel opened its doors in 2006, and people starting coming to H Street to enjoy live music. After that, people with the entrepreneurial spirit saw people going to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel and decided to open other businesses—bars, restaurants and so on—and now the area is thriving. (If you want to hear the story for yourself, click the link above and scroll down to “Rock'n'Roll'n'Revitalization).

According to Ron Simms, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, communities around the country have rallied around live music venues.

“If you have a strong musical scene, you can bring back any community, because people will migrate there," Simms said in the broadcast. "But what happens is that all of sudden, you get new kinds of investments—then the restaurants show up, then the small theaters show up—it becomes more of a total arts district.”

Proving Simms’s point, the Metro Connection segment quotes Jason Martin, the owner of a sushi restaurant called Sticky Rice, who looked to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel as a “gauge” of the neighborhood’s improvement.

“Because of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel and the Argonaut, Sticky Rice and a slew of other businesses opened up. Just the overflow of foot traffic from people going to every business is benefiting everyone, and it has a lot to do with the music venue.”

It’s not hard to see why. According to the segment, an estimated 2000 and 2,500 people come to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel on a “good” weekend.

So, could a live music venue do the same for College Park?

I believe it could. The Greater D.C.-area has a strong music scene and there are plenty of bands and musicians right here in our own backyard (I’m a member of a band myself). Moreover, musicians are always looking for new venues and with the demise of the Sante Fe Café and the Berwyn Café, College Park doesn’t offer local bands many options.

Of course, the bigger question is would College Park welcome such a live music venue? I’m tempted to say “no,” given the all too frequent public opposition to what seems like any new venture in the city (e.g., Hollywood Park, the Bamboo Eater, the Comfort Zone, the student housing developments along Route 1, and so on).

Before I go any further, let me say that I'm aware the Birchmere is supposed to come here as part of the East Campus development. But do we really have to wait that long? After all, if the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel opened in 2006, that means it took only four to five years at the most for H Street to come around. East Campus won’t even be open for business in four years.

So, if the city and concerned residents are serious about improving the local business climate in College Park, then a live music venue should be a consideration in the short term.

But don’t take my word for it. If I might pass along something else the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Simms said in the Metro Connection Segment:

“You cannot underestimate the power of musical venues. If you decide you don’t want them you’re basically signing the death warrant to your community. But when you embrace them, you’re willing to say our community has a future—it’s going to be vibrant, it’s going to be attractive, it’s going to be creative. It is a statement of we are.”

I’d like to say those things about my community, wouldn’t you?

 

Smith is a resident of north College Park. He blogs (occasionally) at www.ncpinformant.com. You also can follow him on Twitter: @smithflap.

Kirk Marchand May 03, 2011 at 10:33 AM
Santa Fe tried to establish a consistent, week to week schedule of live music, especially with the garage available for parking. The concept hit a brick wall, because downtown venues such as the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat and the Rock n Roll Hotel have exclusive contracts with promoters so that acts that appear in those clubs and other acts represented by those agents and promoters can't/ don't appear in other venues. If we can get past that very large hurdle it can happen.
Ken Montville May 03, 2011 at 02:30 PM
The biggest challenge after finding the physical space that would accommodate the bands/musicians and parking is finding an audience. College Park has tried live music (in the space that is now Santa Fe) and it worked for awhile. The other thing is the "neighbors". There is likely to be opposition to late night rabble rousing by drunk students spilling out of music venues at two in the morning. Unlike downtown and over in Virginia with the Birchmere where the music venues are a destinations to which people come and then leave the area to go home, College Park is a 24/7 kinda place. People would come to listen to the music and then walk home or back to campus...creating noise all along the way.
Christian James May 03, 2011 at 07:24 PM
Joe, you're writing with the premise that a music club could prompt development in College Park. While the music venues on H Street may have helped that corridor jump-start some development, I'm not sure if that's really a model. I think H Street is a unique scenario - and of course, H Street is already draining the potential market of concert-goers! Even if you wanted to have a venue the size and caliber of the H Street clubs, Kirk and Ken are right, there are too many obstacles. Besides the ones they mentioned are the interest of developers. Joe Englert - a legendary DC developer - was the mastermind behind two of H Street's clubs. You would need a visionary with deep pockets to get that sort of club off the ground in College Park. More importantly, though, the interest among local musicians just isn't there. I disagree that there is a strong local music scene. Immediately upon starting this club, you better get local bands that will draw around 100 people - good luck with that... Maybe there is an artistic group of students and recent graduates who may someday establish a nearby music venue. But if students are going to come, you better get the alcohol license and security established; if you aren't going to have alcohol, and have it be an art space, good luck paying the lease and taxes!
Joe Smith May 04, 2011 at 03:43 PM
I'd like to propose that "good luck with that" replace "a livable community" on those brick things adorning the CP exits off the beltway. Sheesh, what is with the defeatist attitude? If I am writing under any premise, it's that CP will never improve if we're devoid of optimisms and never do anything to make it more than just a "livable" community. Could a music venue in work the same magic in CP that it did on H Street? I don't know, it depends on a lot of factors, but it's worth thinking about and maybe even pursuing. That's why, tonight, I'm going to Baltimore to meet and talk with folks who operate a volunteer-run, community arts space that's been hosting live music and other events for more than 8 years. If they can do it, why can't we? Doesn't "unstoppable start here"?
Christian James May 05, 2011 at 04:42 PM
My defeatist attitude comes from my 10+ years following local music! Which arts space in Baltimore are you referring to? If you haven't, I would definitely recommend speaking with Sarah of Metro Gallery and Mike who books for Charm City Arts Space. But since we're on the topic of Baltimore, I would say it underscores my point. In Baltimore, there is an abundance of both space and discerning audiences; College Park lacks both. Creative Marylanders flee the DC suburbs and settle there, leaving a dearth of creative audiences in College Park.
Joe Smith May 05, 2011 at 04:52 PM
"Creative Marylanders flee the DC suburbs and settle there, leaving a dearth of creative audiences in College Park." And this underscores my point. What if instead of fleeing, people stayed here and did the hard work of creating an arts culture here?
Christian James May 05, 2011 at 05:09 PM
That's a worthy goal, and, without sarcasm this time, I applaud your efforts towards that. I know it is difficult if you are in it alone. (Unless you're Englert and have some money for astroturf). But if you're tapped into some College Park-area scene that I just don't know about, please use the blog to promote it!
Patrick Wojahn May 06, 2011 at 04:29 PM
I agree that creating an arts scene in College Park is a worthy goal. I'll happily embrace anyone who is willing to take on the work of doing it, because it wouldn't be easy. Even though I regularly go to shows, I never went to Santa Fe because it never had acts I was interested in - probably because of the problem that CJ mentions. The Rock & Roll Hotel regularly carries acts I would love to be able to see in College Park. If we could get Joe Englert to open up a third venue in College Park, I'd be all for it.

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