Boathouse closure brings music venue issues to light
Anna Beard ARTS AND CULTURE EDITOR
When the City of Kitchener terminated Kevin Doyle’s lease at The Boathouse, a popular music venue in Victoria Park, and placed the property under city control, local artists and music fans worried that the music culture downtown would dwindle.
“The Boathouse was a place that built a culture,” said Jake Stallard of local band, SexDwarf. “You could just show up and you’re going to see a decent act, and have great food. The Boathouse put Kitchener on the map for people outside of town.”
This perspective is common among people involved with the Waterloo Region artistic community. “The Boathouse is culturally important. It is a great venue for playing Downtown, hearing live music,” said singer-songwriter and spoken word artist, Janice Lee.
“For us, The Boathouse was home base. Kevin [Doyle] was a huge support. His heart was always in the right place. The money we made from playing there essentially funded our first album,” said Stallard.
“[Kitchener-Waterloo] is tough for bands looking to play original music,” he added.
“There are plenty of venues but there’s more opportunity for cover bands or blues – the pubs all want it. As an artist, you could play original music at The Boathouse without having to bring your own crew. Besides Maxwell’s [Music House] and The Boathouse, there aren’t a lot of options.”
Stallard and Lee both said that outside of The Boathouse, Maxwell’s Music House in Waterloo is the next best thing. “Maxwell’s is arguably one of the best places for sound. It’s great for performing,” said Lee.
However, even the Music House has its obstacles. “It’s not accessible, it’s in Waterloo. We’re trying to foster an environment in Kitchener.”
“The Little Bean [Coffee Bar] has become a go-to place with a nice atmosphere, sense of community and a great vibe. Maxwell’s doesn’t have the same feel,” said Stallard.
Steve Tulloch and his wife Deb own The Branches, an intimate venue in uptown Waterloo. Catering to a similar crowd, Tulloch worries what the impact of closure will be when few venues focus on community development.
“I think K-W has at least a few good places [for live music] where artists are respected and people value their work. There are only ten or so, so to lose one or two has a big impact.”
Tulloch agrees that the loss of The Boathouse as a place to celebrate and develop Kitchener’s musical scene has negative cultural implications. “It’s the type of venue that fosters community. What we’ve lost should be replaced,” said Tulloch.
When the city took control of The Boathouse in early September, Mayor Carl Zehr stated, “The city is committed to The Boathouse being an important cultural venue for live music”.
Silvia Di Donato, manager of arts and culture for the City of Kitchener, reinforced the statement, expressing the city’s desire for the development of a local music network.
“The Boathouse is a great catalyst for music. The commitment to live music has been ongoing. The city is committed to supporting the local music industry through continued consultation,” said Di Donato.
The city is already taking steps to ensure that both local musicians and local businesses continue to work to support the local music culture in Kitchener.
With their program Music Works, an initiative designed to support, facilitate, and accelerate the local music business cluster, the city has come up with three focus areas that work together to support local economy, fostering community, and developing talent.
“We’re looking to venues that support live music and help the ecosystem thrive. With events like KOICon , we’re using business development to help people who are looking for mentorship. These type of networking events are helpful for success – they energize the culture of the community,” said Di Donato. KOICon is a day-long conference, awards ceremony and showcase of independent artists representing a wide range of music genres from the region including rock, folk, blues, metal, reggae, ska, country, punk, jazz and classical.
“The Boathouse is a catalyst. It’s a testament to the quality of artists found in the community. Local musicians interacting with touring musicians has been essential in creating a music scene,” said Di Donato.
“The Boathouse as a venue is important but at the same time, there are other venues showing the same commitment to supporting local artists.”
Stallard admitted even with The Boathouse closing, the city has taken steps to foster the development of a music scene downtown. “There have been more musical opportunities recently – the King Street Art Market and food truck events are incorporating live music and building [the scene] up even more.
The Boathouse may not be empty for long. New potential owners are already lining up. Glenn Smith, the owner of Ethel’s Lounge in Waterloo has made it clear that he plans on putting forth a request for proposal in October. “It’s an idea and getting it past council will take work so we’ll see how that goes,” said Smith.
Currently, terms of reference are being developed and the city will begin taking requests for proposals in early October.
The approximate timeline is ambitious –a new tenant by December, renovations beginning in early 2014 and a reopening in time for summer. Regardless of the fate of The Boathouse, it is safe to say that residents will be tracking its progression and a new tenant has rather large shoes to fill.
Stallard thinks it’s important to have quality venues like The Boathouse available to local artists. “Without these venues, artists don’t have a place to hone their craft and practice playing their music. It can be a big deterrent not having that support”