When Stonefish Sushi & More opened its doors in downtown Cortez more than three years ago, owner Brandon Shubert began booking musical gigs on the stage reserved for sushi dining during regular hours. His plan was to present two gigs each month after hours on Saturday nights, offer live music at no cover, keep the bar open and let the people downtown enjoy the nightlife a little longer.
Today he still books live musicians once a month, but he has replaced the other event with electronic dance music generated by a professional DJ. He changes out the lighting to emulate club atmosphere and turns the volume up on the street. He calls it Club Mudd, and it’s a hit.
Two blocks away, Patti Simmons, the original owner of Blondies, which was already established and successful when Stonefish showed up, expanded the offerings at Blondies by promoting open-mic nights and installing a large stage in the front section of the bar.
Business began a trickling growth at these two food places. Live musicians were adding value to the restaurants.
Soon Mr. Happy’s Bar, Grill and Bakery moved in a block away from Blondie’s. Dave Chisholm, co-owner with his wife, Jill, knocked down an interior wall, renovated the space, painted the whole establishment sunshine yellow, added a bespectacled Biker Smiley Face to the murals already on the building, built a stage large enough for a good size rock’n’roll group, installed one of the best sound systems in the region, and created a marketing plan to promote the bands he booked.
Traction was happening. The Cortez music scene was growing.
By spring 2012, people were spending time after 9 p.m. walking Main Street going from place to place to hear the music.
Today the three restaurants have been joined by White Cup Coffeehouse in the same area of downtown. It opened with a stage, another high-profile sound system, and additional rooms for musical studies. The owners offer advice on how to buy a guitar and all the services one would find in a full-service music store, except it is a coffeehouse and stage.
According to owners Wayne and Elizabeth Hatch Reichert, Wayne’s forte is “pawnshop rescue” (salvaging used guitars). With 25 years’ experience as a guitar luthier at their former location in Sanford, Fla., the Reicharts considered relocating to Cortez, Elizabeth’s hometown. To their surprise, the music scene was happening right in the heart of town. They opened the new coffeehouse next to KSJD Community Radio’s coming performance center, just a block from Blondies and Mr Happy’s, and east of Stonefish Sushi and More.
The KSJD performance space is scheduled to open in early 2014, but its presence is already being felt on the street. Some broadcasting has even moved out of the front door onto the steps.
Tom Yoder, KSJD programming and me dia director, brought the mikes out on the front porch steps for the Montezuma Blue Star Moms during the George Geer Car show at City Park this year. In the evening the vintage autos cruised up and down Main Street, but in 2013, they also parked and talked with Yoder on-air about the significance of the veterans event.
It happened while the youngsters were jamming inside White Cup. People were crowding the street. It was a peek into the future of how a vibrant downtown Cortez might look once the performance space opens.
When completed, it will add another venue for lectures, music shows, movie nights and small theatre productions. “It’s becoming a corner where public media flows, exchanges information, and that always attracts people,” said Yoder.
And people spend money where they spend time.
The growing music attractions piggybacked on food and beverage establishments are bringing more people – tourists, locals and musicians – to Main Street. Some are calling the change a shift toward a designated music-arts district.
In early summer, the Cortez Cultural Center’s board of directors hired a new director, Anne Beach. This summer she collaborated with KSJD, just across the street from the center, and a half block from the crossroads of Main and Market. Together they brought Keith Secola, a Native American blues and rock singer, to the center for a concert. The plaza filled with people eager to hear Secola, who is well-known in Europe and on the rez, and now had an opportunity to share his music with the radio-station listeners and a live audience simultaneously. His presence kept people downtown four more hours, increasing the possibility that restaurants would benefit from after-concert diners.
The Reicherts, however, chose to shut White Cup during Secola’s performance. They said it was better to post a sign saying they were attending the concert, and thereby cross-promote Secola, rather than stress over the loss of customer base while he was playing. They also admitted, “We are musicians and we really wanted to see his gig. It was great!”
Needing more bars?
In revitalization economics, the growth of multi-use entrepreneurial businesses is called “related cluster networks.” Matthew Yglesias, Slate magazine’s business and economics correspondent, recently addressed issues around urban cluster networks in an article titled, “Your Neighborhood Needs More Bars.”
“Cities … recognize that bars and restaurants are not the ugly stepchildren of the modern urban economy: They are its greatest strength,” he wrote. “They spur small business growth and creation citywide… [bringing] overall benefits to the region…”
An additional value for the city of Cortez is the location of the current food, bar and music businesses in older buildings. The spaces are not attractive to big-box or more modern retail chains that prefer new sprawling malls. Empty dilapidated buildings at the center of a town portray a look of despair. But the music and food industries can ignite revitalization. Fortunately, they want to be near each other.
“Theaters and live-music venues benefit from proximity to other after-hours activities and also drive customers to bars and restaurants … Providing these kinds of dense networks of related but independent small undertakings is exactly what cities are good at,” Yglesia wrote.
He added that the value grows in each business. “Complicated interdependencies and complementarities arise … you might want to meet friends for dinner in a neighborhood where you’re also likely to be able to grab a drink afterwards.”
Now a destination for local entertainment, the downtown Cortez restaurant/ music venues are providing a place for the music service industry to perform and manifest revenue to the establishments. Nothing in the business model is tangible at first until enough profit can generate investment in a new concrete patio or a performance hall windows, or old dangerous stairs get replaced with new safe structures and wheelchair access grows. These are tangible signs of intangible services, like the work of musicians and artists and wait staffs, that precede profit and the growth of materialism.
‘We’re in This Together’
Yet none of it would be happening in downtown Cortez without the love of the musicians’ services and a desire to hear their music.
According to Shubert, who is also a vocalist and harmonica player, “Mel [his wife and business partner] and I love music. If we break even I’m pretty happy about it.” Chisholm agreed. “We do it because we love music. Eventually it will pay off down the road.”
Deswood Calhoon, current owner of Blondies Trophy Room, knows it’s good for the biker bar’s business. “We are 70 percent liquor, 30 percent food, live music and no cover. Karaoke is our best draw. Live bands are great. Musicians are good for business.”
He also said the music scene keeps people in downtown Cortez as opposed to traveling to Durango. “These two blocks are becoming the place to be because customers can walk between venues.”
The city benefits too, Chisholm explained. “They have been wonderful, really supportive. People complain about government entities blocking business, but I’ve never seen it. No one wants to control growth here and that’s good.”
Cortez City Manager Shane Hale said that the city incentive resolution, “We’re in This Together,” is based on encouraging new growth. Passed in October 2012, the resolution includes a 10 percent sales-tax rebate on new sales by at least 3 percent over the prior year and 50-percent abatement of the building permit fees and use taxes on new construction or remodels for all business building permits through Dec. 31, 2014.
“We’re always looking at other small-town models – the ones with highways going through them,” Hale said. “Cities are defined by their downtowns today and there’s a lot of cool stuff happening in ours. The resolution represents our partnership with business. In our meetings we all talk about a walkable downtown, a good place for pedestrians and families. We’re working to slow traffic through our beautification programs because people spend more money at 3 miles an hour than they do going 30 miles an hour.”
The customer base on Main Street is mostly local in the winter season, but during spring, summer and fall, tourists beef up the street. The music groups are also mostly local, with some returning road groups or singers who have developed a following at the venues.
Moe Cooley, lead for the popular local Moetones, and a resident of Cortez, said the music has always been here, “even before I got here from Austin.”
“It takes a lot of people to make this happen,” Cooley said. “The hopeful part is that even though the quality is extremely good and the number of musicians is growing I haven’t seen the kind of backstabbing that you find in places like Austin. Everyone just wants to play. What’s happening is really right.”
Nashville bluesman Dave Duncan is returning to Stonefish in mid-September, booked back by popular demand, but also because he likes the feeling in Cortez.
“I love playing gigs in southwestern Colorado,” said Duncan. “The fans are knowledgeable and appreciative. It’s a highlight of my summer touring schedule, in particular Stonefish in Cortez. Bob Dunn [local harp] sat in with me when I played there in July. Brandon got up and sang with me. We had a really joyful groove going all night.
“I really look forward to coming back again in a few weeks. I enjoy playing music in Mississippi & lower Alabama but there is always something special about my gigs in Cortez and the distillery in Mancos.”
Dunn is a vocalist and harmonica player. A longtime resident of Cortez and front man for his group, Big Money and the Corporate Citizens, he feels that joy, too. “It is really gratifying to have more places to play. Local bar and restaurant owners are doing a great service to this community.”
He feels the benefit is more than just economic. “I was working the open mikes when they began. Young people started showing up. It’s so amazing to watch them. They get a chance to play real music on a real stage, with real instruments and a real audience. Over just a period of a few gigs they begin to blossom and thrive and are learning from the professionals on a level they don’t get in school.
“I have to give Patti Simmons the credit for starting it all when she began open mic nights at Blondies many years ago. She provided the first venue for these kids. It has created intergenerational respect.”
A city with life
Cody Kaufman is a young local bass player who frequents all the open mikes and often sits in with the professional groups. He is well known for his musicianship and style. “This town is really better for all the music places, because now we can get out of the garages, play in front of an audience. The scene is giving kids better things than to do drugs and be hoodlums.”
His abilities are expanding to a point where he knows what he didn’t have when he was an emerging player. “I plan to open my own studio, to teach how to be a musician, not just how to play songs.”
Most nights the overflow of young heavymetal aficionados clogs the sidewalk in front of the White Cup. It is something rarely seen previously on Main Street. Kids are hanging out with guitars and harmonicas; some are flipping skateboards, most just talking and connecting with each other.
Reichert says that the investment in the young customers pays it forward. “It’s a whole new area for the young folks. It’s like a Petri dish for the future; seeding baby bands, artists and newcomers.”
All of this is feeding money and vitality to musicians, business establishments, city coffers and peripheral businesses. At this time the venues see the network cluster as genial and cooperative, grateful for the high quality of the musicians and positive about future business.
Cooley agrees with Dunn, who said he is amazed by the amount of righteous music in Cortez. “We are poised to become a musical destination place. Maybe not an Austin or Memphis,” added Cooley, “but definitely one that contributes to the economy and the arts. When a city has thriving artists in all genres, it has life and that’s something people seek, something we can be proud of.”
According to Chisholm, we are all beginning to be known by music genres. “Here at Mr. Happy’s we present jazz on the first Saturday every month, and karaoke is always a popular night,” he said. “The only genre that is a little hard for our customers may be heavy metal. But we have all sorts of wonderful folk, blues, and rock ’n’ roll.”
Blondies “runs at customer capacity most weekends for the four groups we book each month,” said Calhoon. Chisholm said a good open-mike night is 40 to 70 customers and “that’s about the turnout for the popular groups as well.”
According to Yglesia, “Even better is that the Internet isn’t going to put restaurants out of business, for obvious reasons. Under the circumstances, promoting the development and expansion of nightlife hubs should be a key economic development priority for cities.”