Many fear development could hurt music scene

By Rebecca Sweeney

Plans for a hotel to be built on a downtown block where bars and music venues currently stand — including The Dame, Mia’s and Buster’s — have many Lexingtonians worried about the city’s music and entertainment future.

Tom Martin, chairman of the Downtown Entertainment Development Task Force, said he is “under the impression” that buildings in the Rosenberg Block — between the corners of West Main and South Upper streets and West Vine and South Limestone streets — will be demolished soon. City Councilwoman Linda Gorton said she knew of development plans for a hotel on the block but did not know specifics.

Nick Sprouse, general manager of The Dame, said he hasn’t been notified of any development plans.

But the possibility that one of the city’s prime music venues could be closing has some concerned.

“In my opinion, the developers who plan to build a hotel on the site don’t give a damn about the social, financial and artistic well-being of the community,” said John Clark, an associate professor of telecommunications and faculty adviser of WRFL-FM.

Building a hotel in that location will harm the local music scene along with the social and artistic culture of Lexington, said Clark, a musician who has played in Lexington clubs since the early ‘80s and calls The Dame his home away from home.

With The Dame, combined with Mia’s and Buster’s, the Rosenberg Block is a huge draw to Lexington’s downtown, he said.

“Those three businesses alone draw hundreds of people, young and old, downtown every week,” Clark said.

“If you eliminate them, you eliminate the reason for those people to come downtown.”

Lexington developer Dudley Webb, whose company owns buildings on the same block, declined to comment on any development until a March 4 public meeting.

Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who did not confirm specifics of the development plan but called it an ambitious project that will require a long process, also expressed some concern about downtown’s entertainment future.

“I certainly hope that we will make every effort to retain energy that’s been created there,” said Gray, a member of the Downtown Entertainment Development Task Force.

Closing The Dame would cut opportunities for local artists and venues for original music by at least 75 percent, Clark said, mainly because of the volume of music offered by the venue.

“The cover bands in the suburban bars will go on unaffected,” Clark said. “There is no question it will make it harder for local original music bands to achieve any level of success or prominence. There’s nothing like playing live regularly to make your band really tight.”

Robby Catholic, of the Lexington band The Scourge of the Sea, said the city is an ideal place for touring bands because there are several major cities within a seven-hour radius.

His band would be affected if The Dame closes, and fewer national acts would tour through the city, Catholic said.

“The greater loss will be the impact on the music, art and social communities that live downtown,” he said.

Even though the possible closing of The Dame would be a loss, Catholic was sure something would eventually take its place.

“Something new will emerge. It always does,” Catholic said.

Other bars that feature music like Lynagh’s Pub, The Fishtank and Cheapside Bar and Grill don’t have the capacity for a crowd and don’t book as diverse acts as The Dame, Clark said.

The Downtown Entertainment Development Task Force was created to determine factors that prevent entertainment venues from opening in the downtown sector.

Lexington is “well behind the curve” as a city without a thriving downtown, especially for being home to two universities, said Martin, also editor in chief of Business Lexington.

With Hamburg Pavilion to the city’s east, Fayette Mall to the south and new shopping centers being developed north of Richmond, south of Georgetown and in Franklin County, malls are sucking the retail oxygen out of downtown Lexington, Martin said.

Another downtown hotel would benefit the city when large crowds visit Lexington for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Martin said. The hotel’s construction would be justified if more events followed the equestrian games, drawing visitors to Lexington, and the project could even result in more entertainment options, he said.

There are plenty of vacancies downtown that offer street-level space for prospective music venues, Martin said, and the task force is trying to determine why they remain empty when zoning allows for their presence.

Ross Compton, who runs one of the city’s few all-age music venues, The Icehouse, said Lexington is not the friendliest area for venues.

“The culture and atmosphere for entertainment offerings in Lexington aren’t necessarily inviting, but I’m not sure why,” Compton said.

The Icehouse closed earlier this month because of a mix of zoning and fire code violations. Compton said he is working with the city and fire marshals to fix the problems and isn’t ready to give up on the venue.

Compton has been in Lexington for more than 10 years and is seeing some changes for the better.

“Despite the negativity about what’s going on around The Dame, I think Lexington is about to turn the corner,” Compton said. “There are a lot of positive things happening, and we’re getting a hold on things.”