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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Staying alive: How are the arts district venues surviving until they can reopen?

UPDATED: Fri., April 30, 2021

Bing Crosby grew up in Spokane and left for the bright lights of California in 1925 for fame and fortune. After enjoying a great deal of success as a developer in California, Jerry Dicker left the Golden State for Spokane in search of peaceful family life in 2001.

Dicker, 81, owns the Bing Crosby Theater among other properties in Spokane. Since the pandemic commenced 14 months ago, fame and the Bing’s stage have been mutually exclusive, and it has cost Dicker a fortune to pay the bills since COVID-19 has shut the historic venue’s doors.

“Ninety-five percent of what has been used to pay the Bing’s bills comes from our resources,” Dicker said. “We received a small grant, and we have received some donations, which covers repairs. All the operational costs are covered by my wife, Patti, and myself.”

Not every venue is as fortunate to have an owner with deep pockets. It’s been a struggle for halls across the country to stay afloat even with grants and loans. Entertainment industry executives have bandied about how to open at a fraction of capacity for much of the last year, but the reality is that a number of sellouts are necessary for venues to open.

“That’s pretty accurate,” said Brian Ritter, the Fox Theater’s general manager. “That’s just how it is when you factor in everything.” That’s why Sheryl Stone, the talent booker at the Bing Crosby Theater, will not secure a name act until 2022.

“It doesn’t make sense to book quality shows at half capacity, so I’m not going to book any of those shows until next year,” Stone said. “We have about 750 seats. We’ll be hard pressed to make money or at least break even if we don’t do this correctly. Right now, we’re doing all that we can for when we can open the doors for our shows.

“That day will come, and we’re looking forward to it. There may be some shows at the Bing this year as rentals. The Knitting Factory is renting for the Nate Bargatze show.” Danny Glazier, talent buyer for Knitting Factory Entertainment, is crossing his fingers that the Bargatze event, which has been bumped yet again, to Aug. 14, and other shows happen in 2021.

“We’re hoping things get better soon,” said Glazier, who’s based in Boise. “We would love to get back to business, but we’re at the mercy of the touring industry and the pandemic. It’s been tough for us just like it’s been tough for everyone in this business since the pandemic arrived. We’ve had to do things we wish we didn’t have to do.”

Like many venues, the Knitting Factory had no choice but to lay off employees. “The staff cuts were tough,” Glazier said. “Bartenders and security were the first to go. We’ve had to do what we had to do to stay afloat. We’re lucky enough that we’re a multifaceted company with a management division and a record label division (Partisan Records), so we’re not solely dependent on concerts, but it’s been very difficult for us.”

Unlike many club operators, Glazier and his staff had an idea of how to continue when a venue’s doors close. In 2018, the Boise Knitting Factory was shuttered for seven months due to a fire.

“The silver lining is that we learned how to survive,” Glazier said. “We were able to step back from the situation and figure out where to go from there. This is the worst thing to go through as a talent buyer, but I commend my team for all that they’ve done, and we’re going to come back smarter and better when we open our doors again here and in Spokane.”

When venues will open again is the question. “We have some things on the calendar for June, but we just don’t know how things will play out yet,” Ritter said. “We’re cautiously optimistic. We hope to stay at Phase 3 and not go back to Phase 2. This period has been so difficult for us as it’s been for everyone in this industry.”

The Fox has been propped up by its donor base and a pair of payment protection program loans that have become grants. “We’ve raised over a million dollars from our donors who have been very generous, and our PPP has totaled about $700,000, but all of that money goes quickly,” Ritter said. “There’s the infrastructure we have to keep up with and the employees (salaries).”

The Fox is anticipating funds from the Shuttered Venues Operator grant, which is designed to provide aid to venues. “We don’t know how much we’ll receive yet,” Ritter said. “But it will be a significant chunk of change. We appreciate the support since it will enable us to come back, but we can’t wait until we can have events again. We’ll certainly be ready when the time comes.”

Ritter hopes to open in time for Spokane native Julia Sweeney’s rescheduled shows in October. However, don’t expect the Fox to announce new concerts yet. “We have some really cool shows coming up, but we don’t want to put them on sale and then reschedule them,” Ritter said. “That would feel disingenuous.”

That approach might become the norm, and as a result there will be a much shorter window to sell tickets. “But I don’t think that’s going to be an issue since I think there will be a massive appetite to see shows,” Ritter said.

When events return, the impact on downtown will be significant, especially if the expected run of sellouts happens. “The return of shows will be huge for restaurants and hotels here,” Dicker said. “Downtown needs events since there isn’t enough population down here. You need to give people in the area and outside of the area a reason to come to downtown Spokane.

“We just reopened the Sapphire (Lounge) last night. It would really help if there were shows. When we do get back, I’m hoping the speculation is correct and people pack the venues. We need 10 to 15 sellouts a year (to break even). The economics of all of this are difficult during good times, let alone during a pandemic.”

Dicker summed up, “I’m looking forward to those good times. I can’t wait for them to come back. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I do think people will appreciate shows more than ever. We all can’t wait for them to come back. When they do come back, we’ll be ready at the Bing.”

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