In the basement of the old Display House building in downtown Spokane, Chris Lewis gropes around in the dark, struggling to find a light switch to illuminate what soon will be the home of his new jazz bar, the Bluelight Underground.
After several minutes and a few phone calls, he finds a panel of old, push-button light switches and sheds illumination first on a rock wall that will be partially torn out for what Lewis describes as a big, dramatic staircase entrance, then on a dirty wood floor where hell put customer seating, and finally into a far corner where cool jazz will ooze from a stage.
A switch has been flicked in downtown Spokane as well, the 33-year-old Lewis says. Big projects downtownmostly the renovation and reopening of the Davenport Hotel and the redevelopment of River Park Squarehave spurred the opening and planned premieres of a number of nightlife hot spots, he says.
Spokane culture is coming around, says Lewis, who expects to open the Bluelight Underground, at the northwest corner of Second Avenue and Lincoln Street, in late April. There was nothing to do here, but now, there are reasons to come downtown.
A few blocks away from the old Display House, a $7 million renovation project is under way at the northeast corner of First Avenue and Monroe Street, where Boise-based Bravo Entertainment LLP plans to open the 23,000-square-foot Big Easy Concert House, with a 1,700-seat concert hall and 300-seat restaurant, by year-end. North one block from there, two Spokane businessmen are remodeling a building to make way for a sports restaurant and bar to be called Heroes & Legends, which is expected to open in June.
Already, Spokane developer Rob Brewster Jr. has opened The Catacombs in the basement of the Montvale Building, at the southwest corner of First and Monroe, and the owners of Slick Rock Burrito have reopened the Baby Bar in the back of their downtown eatery in the Courtyard Office Suites, at the southeast corner of First and Lincoln. A few blocks away, at 321 W. Sprague, Banana Joes nightclub has opened in the former Outback Jacks location.
With all these new clubs going up, at first I was scared of the competition, Lewis says. Now, I think the more, the better. They just feed off of each other.
At least one long-time establishment has noticed an increase in business since the downtown renovation began. Bill Alles, general manager of the WestCoast Ridpath Hotel, at 515 W. Sprague, says specifically, both of the nightlife establishments thereAnkenys, on the 12th floor, and the Silver Grill Caf, on the main floorhave been busier since the Davenport Hotel and Banana Joes opened.
He expects another surge in business after the Big Easy opens.
I just think to have an entertainment corridor downtown makes nothing but sense, Alles says.
Theres more to come. Spokane developer Walt Worthy, who with his wife, Karen, renovated and reopened the Davenport Hotel, says the hotels lounge, the Peacock Room, has performed well, and he plans to add live music.
The tipping point
Mike Edwards, executive director of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, says that after a metropolitan downtown receives an explosion of investment, as Spokanes city center has during the past few years, a quieter period follows during which smaller spaces are renovated or upgraded. He says thats whats occurring in downtown Spokane and will continue to happen over the next few years. Such projects spread the income-generating power of a downtown to more people, which is healthy, Edwards says.
Soon, he says, people will come to downtown Spokane to see whats going on, rather than wondering whether there is anything happening.
Thats the tipping point were looking for, Edwards says. Get them to assume that something really great is happening downtown all the time.
While downtown Spokane has had its share of nightspots come and go through the years, developers say infill is occurring in the form of nightlife venues because of the need for such offerings here.
Paul Thornton, owner of Boise-based Bravo Entertainment, says Bravo also is a concert organizer that has brought a number of acts to Spokane. He says the company has struggled to find venues here for acts that command a bigger audience than the 750-seat Metropolitan Performing Arts Theater can hold, but cant fill the Spokane Opera House, which has 2,700 seats.
To fill that void, Bravo began looking to develop a Big Easy Concert House here about two years ago, after a similar Big Easy venue it opened in Boise proved to be successful.
Boises downtown went through a refurbishment, and we feel like Spokane is going through that right now, Thornton says.
Tom Griffiths, a Spokane accountant who is developing Heroes & Legends with Spokane mortgage broker Vern Hare at 823 W. Sprague, says he and Hare were looking for a downtown property to buy as an investment when they came across the building at the southeast corner of Lincoln and Riverside Avenue. Griffiths says they didnt intend initially to get into the restaurant and bar business, but decided to take a run at it upon determining the space would be best suited for an eatery and that the citys core doesnt have a sports bar like they envision.
Griffiths says other downtown investments, such as that at the Davenport Hotel and River Park Square, provided the catalyst for his and Hares initial downtown real estate search and the ensuing development plans. Also, he says, they based their decision on how other bars and restaurants are doing downtown.
We feel the amount of change will be adequate to support an establishment like this (Heroes & Legends), Griffiths says.
Lewis, of the Bluelight Underground, concurs.
People complain about River Park Square, he says, referring to legal battles over the malls parking garage, but thats what started it all.
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