Powerful and emblematic story in the Cool Cleveland newsletter by Lee Chilcote about the entrepreneural perils of running a concert club, trying to turn a neighborhood into a cultural center, and the leak of young creative types to more amenable climes. While the story takes place in Cleveland, it could be any city in the country with older neighborhoods, and in particular the Rust Belt where the line between “funky” and “decrepit” is as critical as it is fuzzy:
- If Cindy Barber wrote the book on entrepreneurialism – and after five years of running the Beachland Ballroom, a funky music club in Cleveland’s North Collinwood neighborhood, with business partner Mark Leddy, she probably could – she might give some simple advice: Make sure that you have some money in reserve.
“When 9/11 happened, no one was coming out, and I still had to pay my bills,” she says. “I didn’t have a line of credit to get through it.”
We’re sitting in the Whatnot Coffee Shop, a new business on Waterloo just a block from the club. Cindy pauses to take a bite out of the breakfast sandwich that the waitress has just put down. It’s past noon, but her day has just begun, and if her dark sunglasses are any indication, it won’t be over for a while. Around us, a couple of locals nurse mugs of coffee and flip through newspapers.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go except my own credit cards,” she recalls. It was just a year after the Beachland opened. “I had to run them up, and there’s never been a chance to catch up – plus there have been low times since then. Now we’re desperately trying to refinance our debt.”
….On a street pocked with dark storefronts, and in a neighborhood with its share of urban blight, the Beachland’s neon sign is a beacon. The club offers a potpourri of acts from mosh-pit punk to granola-and-sandals folk, and from up-and-coming local bands to nationally-known performers. The smaller tavern sports music posters from bygone days, and with its missing ceiling tiles and cracked barstools, has a rough-around-the-edges feel. The vast ballroom, once a social hall for Croatian families, has beat-up hardwood floors, and walls still adorned with the murals of Croatians working the fields.
Despite this veneer, the Beachland is struggling. Challenges include fans’ unwillingness to plunk down money in a bad economy, the slowness of other businesses to follow the club’s lead and invest in Waterloo, and the outward flow of young, creative people. You might say the Beachland is exactly the kind of venture that Cleveland’s economy needs to beat its doldrums, yet its economic realities read like a business plan challenge for today’s arts entrepreneurs.
# 1: Develop the Audience
As co-owner and manager of the Beachland, Cindy spends most of her waking hours there; booking bands, paying bills, managing staff, jumping in to tend bar when things get hot. Along the way, she’s gotten to know her customers well.
“There’s a story I’m hearing all the time; it’s become background dialogue,” she says. “A lot of the people who hang out or work here are younger, creative people, and many have been laid off or downsized from some creative venture. Some are picking up part-time work; others are leaving town because they can’t find jobs. There are a limited number of entertainment dollars in Cleveland, and I feel like those dollars are continually shrinking.” …
# 2: Line up Support Early
Meanwhile, in another part of town, the House of Blues on East Fourth Street recently opened its doors. Since the opening night party on Thanksgiving weekend, it’s been the talk of the town. Can it be sustained?
If the club develops staying power, it won’t be by accident, the developers say. MRN Ltd., led by Rick and Ari Maron, lined up support from the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and others. MRN used incentives such as historic tax credits and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to make their deals work. They also convinced the city to re-do the street with heated sidewalks, custom brickwork and artsy lighting (they chipped in part of the cost).
“Our goal is to create something unique to the city,” says Ari Maron. “There’s only one Pickwick and Frolic or House of Blues in Cleveland – we don’t need to compete with the lifestyle centers and the malls.”
The difference between them? MRN is a developer with money; Cindy is an entrepreneur with a dream. (In her former life, she helped to found the Cleveland Free Times.) She didn’t intend to start a music club – she did it, she says “because this is my neighborhood.” The Croatian Hall went up for sale, and the Beachland was born. ….
# 3: Build a Critical Mass
Still, Cindy insists that entrepreneurs, while not arriving like lemmings, are on their way. Since the Beachland opened, she’s pushed the redevelopment of Waterloo as an arts and culture district with a restaurant, wine bar and coffee shop. In the last few years, the idea has been gaining momentum.
“Things on the street were happening slowly, so I ran for the board of the community development corporation, Northeast Shores, to push it harder and faster,” she says.
First, there’s Arts Collinwood, a ragtag band of artists and activists promoting the arts in the neighborhood. Despite a small budget and no staff, they’ve accomplished a surprising amount. They obtained funding to run a summer arts camp for neighborhood kids, and worked with the Beachland to put together a holiday arts show called Weekends on Waterloo. One of the leaders, Sarah Gyorki, started the Whatnot Coffee Shop two years ago. More recently, an anonymous benefactor purchased a building at 156th and Waterloo, steps from the Beachland, and there are plans to convert it to an art gallery and café at street level, as well as performance space and artist studios. Unlike the Whatnot Coffee Shop, whose future is up in the air, the new café will be run by a restaurateur. The group plans on doing a search for the right tenants. “We look at Waterloo as a kind of centerpiece for our efforts,” says Sarah Gyorki. “This has the potential to be a destination district – unlike some other neighborhoods in Cleveland, North Collinwood never went all the way down. We still have good business districts, and a great location.” ….
#4: Write Your Own Succession Plan
The conclusion to Cindy and Mark’s entrepreneurial story hasn’t been written. She’s tired – on top of running the club, she’s also caring for a sick relative – but not yet ready to throw in the towel. The day that we sit down to talk, she’s got bags under her eyes, but smiles when she talks about last night. “I was up till 3 AM saying goodbye to the Reverend Horton Heat, after he said wonderful things about the Beachland,” she says. Stories like this one, about a national musician that loves to play the club, bolster her spirit. “The legendary, word-of-mouth success has surpassed my wildest dreams,” she shakes her head. “One of our bartenders went to England with his band, and somebody recognized her American accent and asked where she was from. He said, ‘Oh, my favorite club in America is in Cleveland, do you know the Beachland Ballroom?’”
As the club approaches its fifth anniversary, Cindy is starting to realize that for the venture to thrive, it needs a succession plan.
“In some ways, I don’t have any choice but to keep going,” she says with a sigh. “I’d love to step back and find someone else to run the Beachland – someone with the right vision and integrity, who wants to carry on the things that we’ve created.”
I’d love to Cindy, but I’m about the same age you are, don’t have any extra money, have a house and four kids, and am trying to make a go of my own rather quixotic business. But the club is great and you deserve to be rewarded for your efforts, as does the neighborhood, which has the potential to be a Tremont or Coventry.