For decades, Western New Yorkers have been arguing over what has generally been viewed as misuse of the waterfront area.
Members of the music community, likewise, have long decried the lack of a permanent large-scale performance venue, and claimed the absence of such a venue as a significant factor in the lack of human traffic downtown.
But with the recent explosion of activity along the waterfront – the hugely successful Inner Harbor summer concerts, the addition of the Outer Harbor as a summer concert destination, the new builds happening around First Niagara Center – the Cobblestone District surrounding the arena and adjacent to the Inner Harbor would seem an ideal location for a live music renaissance.
Already, several restaurants and bars are doing good business in the region, much of it ancillary to events at First Niagara Center, but some of it runoff from the influx of temporary population caused by the major summer concerts, some of which bring as many as 15,000 people to the area several times a summer.
Those people are drawn to the area by a desire to hear live music. It seems only logical, then, that providing them with more live music options would keep them in the area longer.
For two local businessmen, it’s not just an idea; they’re putting their money where the music could be.
Real estate developer Sam Savarino and his partners Roger Trettel, Ed Plata and Dan Mania have purchased the building at 49 Illinois St., adjacent to First Niagara Center, and are planning to open the building as a live music club, bar and restaurant in the coming weeks. The area already includes the restaurant Lagerhaus 95, which Savarino and his partners own, as well as the Cobblestone Bar and the Helium Comedy Club.
The new club on Illinois – to be known as the Iron Works – will open in early July, and will feature live music five nights a week, with local bands figuring prominently in the bookings. Touring national acts will also frequent the two-story club, which will have a capacity of between 300 and 400 persons, and a garage-style door opening onto Illinois Street, with a patio area fronting the club’s entrance.
The one thing Savarino and his crew building it cannot provide is the key element for success: people.
But they’re working on it.
A musical journey
The precedent for success surrounding the Buffalo Place summer concert series was well-established when that series still made its home in Lafayette Square. The runoff to area clubs within walking distance of the Square during this time was considerable.
Mohawk Place, for example, built a post-Square weekly event that found bands performing both inside the club and on the sidewalk area in front. These shows were routinely packed to bursting. People came downtown for the Square shows, and stayed around to patronize Mohawk Place once those shows wrapped up, in the neighborhood of 9 p.m.
The Lafayette Tap Room enjoyed considerable runoff as well, and routinely featured live bands hitting the stage just as the Square concerts ended.
When the Buffalo Place shows moved from Lafayette Square to the Harbor, Mohawk Place took a serious hit, eventually closing, with the club’s mangers citing the loss of this Thursday business as a primary reason for doing so.
Already, the Liberty Hound bar and restaurant – located just outside the Inner Harbor concert site – has become a go-to destination for concert-goers, with local bands enjoying the opportunity to perform for capacity crowds on a weekly basis, immediately following the Canalside concerts.
“The music scene here, though pretty amazing talent-wise, is definitely disjointed,” said veteran area musician Geno McManus.
McManus said Buffalo could use a district or a string of music venues in the mold of Austin, Texas. The city was headed that way in the early 1990s, but then dance clubs and deejays came into vogue.
“But more people are moving downtown now, and the new hotels going up, combined with Canalside and the arena, make it a good location to start building the reputation,” he said. “That’s something that has to be done, because for the Cobblestone District to work, it can’t become solely seasonally dependent on Canalside shows or Sabres games.”
McManus raises points that have not been lost on Savarino, who says his plans for the Iron Works include live music “at a minimum of five nights a week, and always when there is an event at the FNC or Canalside.” Savarino’s long-term goals are based on the idea of connecting the portion of Perry Street that runs between Main Street, at Canalside, and Michigan Avenue, which he sees as prime real estate for an entertainment district.
But Savarino has no experience running a music club. His plans involve staffing the Iron Works with sound and booking professionals. Over the past few months, he and his staff have been meeting with independent promoters in the area, and though the position has remained unfilled, Savarino believes that the club must pursue specific branding and a clear image. In the world of live music, this means booking the right bands.
“The type of music being played is important,” said Craig Maedl of Buffalo.
“I remember going to Thursday at the Square some years back, and the variety of music – rock, R&B, blues, ’60s and ’70s music, alt-country, bluegrass – kept things exciting. If the club sticks to one style – strictly blues or hard rock, for example – it would be more difficult to draw the casual music fan. But if the people had a good time their first visit and heard a different type of band the next time, maybe more to their liking, they will return again.”
In the interest of consistent variety, the Iron Works hopes to host both national touring bands and local artists, according to Savarino.
“The goal was to create a nice club – something classy, with a sense of the area’s genuine history in evidence, that’s also a great place for touring acts used to performing for crowds in the 400-person range,” he said. “And there will be a strong local music presence. The club has a large main stage, as well as a smaller second stage for more intimate, acoustic performances.”
The construction of an appropriate venue staffed by professionals, and committed to a full roster of touring and local acts does not in itself guarantee success, of course. Some members of the music community remain at least a little bit skeptical about the Cobblestone District’s prospects.
“On any given night,” said Roy Bakos, a longtime member of the live music community and a manager at the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, “we have 900 seats at the Town Ballroom and the Waiting Room. Then throw in another 600 at Ani DiFranco’s church, 200 at Nietzsche’s, 150 at DBGB’s, 300 at the Sportsmen’s Tavern, and that is 2,150 ‘seats’ to fill within a 2-mile radius.
“That number doesn’t count smaller venues, and oddballs like Pearl Street, or Adam Mickiewicz, or Dnipro. In order for a place, or even a district, to work, we would need 5,000 to 7,000 people to go out every week to have all of those places filled to 30 percent capacity for live music.
“That might be a tall order. Not impossible, but hard. People would have to be in it for the long haul.”
A new, healthy optimism?
For Gov. Cuomo’s Western New York spokesman Peter Gallivan, the issue of growth in the area comes down to dollars, cents, and common sense.
“The whole direction the Canalside area is taking is incredibly exciting, and speaks of a new and healthy optimism regarding downtown in general,” Gallivan said.
“Already, between $40 and $50 million in public money has been invested in the area, in order to get it to where it is right now. The new builds – the Donovan Building, Terry Pegula’s projects – are evidence that success breeds success. That’s $250 million in private investment. The whole idea with public investment is to plant seeds for private investors to come along and build upon. We’re seeing that now. It makes perfect sense for the Cobblestone District to be a part of this growth, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see private investment happening there.”
Still, naysaying remains significant among the music community. Much of it has to do with parking in the area, the lack of foot traffic, and the fact that the Cobblestone District would be a specific destination point for people who live outside the immediate area – not something they would stumble upon simply strolling through their neighborhood.
The growth in the area, however, suggests that these problems are surmountable.
“Nietzsche’s may pull in neighborhood walkers, but that isn’t the norm in [the region’s] recent music club history,” said longtime live music supporter Dave Radka of Buffalo.
“The Continental was the only viable bar near Franklin/Chippewa for years. The Mohawk had a 20-year run with nothing nearby. I don’t go to the Town Ballroom or the Tralf or the Sportsmen’s Tavern because I can bar-hop in their neighborhoods afterwards – I go there specifically for the bands. McVan’s, the Icon, Stage One, Rooftops, Lafayette Tap Room, Club Infinity, etc. – they were all ‘destination’ clubs that you drove to. Take some of the good suggestions being thrown around in the community, take advantage of the new construction going on nearby, and a music club in the Cobblestone area could work.”
And the parking situation? It would certainly seem reasonable to suggest that more paid parking will become available as the scene grows.
“Put it this way,” said Gallivan. “Eighteen thousand people come down to the area for every single Sabres home game, and they all find places to park.”
Savarino said that parking has not been an issue for Lagerhaus 95. “In addition to what’s available now, we have asked the city to return parking to Illinois Street, and that looks like it will be happening soon,” he says.
Savarino is also the landlord for the building on Illinois Street that houses the Helium Comedy Club, which is run by owner Marc Grossman. According to Savarino, Helium patrons “use the Sabres surface lot. Parking has not been a problem. If everyone cooperates – and so far, they have – then there is a surfeit of parking.”
Comedian and Helium Comedy Club Manager Kristen Becker said she sees potential synergies between the Iron Works and Helium. “Obviously, any additional business down here is great,” she said. “We are two different genres of entertainment that should complement each other nicely. The two clubs could become the core of a new entertainment destination in Buffalo.”
It would seem, then, that pieces are beginning to come together, and that synergies long believed to be the key to the area’s future success are at last being capitalized upon. The prime mover in all of this activity? Surely it’s that indomitable belief that, when given the opportunity to support growth and positive change, the majority of our population will grab it.
“The key to innovation in the Cobblestone District is to think big, act small, fail fast, and learn rapidly,” said Tom Fischer, bassist with the Buffalo band the Outlyers. “Whether it is music, food service, or retail, the formula is the same. Big fish eat little fish. Little fish need to be spawned and nurtured. Start with small, high quality venues, and see what the market bears.”