Tehee: It's time for River Park to score a music venue

The Fresno BeeJanuary 22, 2014 

Just a few days after uber hip clothing retailer H&M announced it would be opening in the River Park shopping center (to the squealing delight of many), the World Sports Cafe closed its doors.

The sports-themed restaurant/bar owned by former San Francisco 49er Tim McDonald had been part of the River Park landscape for 15 years. It's leaving open a spot of prime real estate at the shopping center, which has folks asking: What will take its place?

Among the speculation (and/or wishful thinking) is the grown-up arcade Dave & Busters and Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery, a Celtic-theme competitor to Hooters.

What River Park needs is a live music venue.

In a recent liveability survey done by the online magazine Voactiv, Fresno is ranked 42 among the top 50 most populous cities when it comes to music venues. The city came in at 3.8 venues per 100,000 people. Do the math and that comes out to less than 20 music venues in all of Fresno. (For fun, we could try to name them all and count the ones north of Shaw avenue.) For contrast, the city of Austin, Texas, has 145 venues, give or take.

Let's not be confused. Not just any venue can open at River Park. This can't be another nightclub, or a bar with stage that hosts open mic nights and has bands on the weekends.

It needs to be a venue dedicated to live performance, a place with 300-plus capacity and a sound and light engineer on staff (or at least on call). It needs a talent buyer, not a promoter (and there is a difference). It needs to focus heavily on touring acts and be able to play as a small- to mid-venue counterpart to the Save Mart Center.

A House of Blues would be the obvious choice. It has the built-in technical know-how and name recognition that River Park seems to thrive on.

It would be nice to have a place more homegrown — A Fulton 55 or Stummer's North, perhaps?

If this sounds at all familiar, it's the same pitch we heard when the Sammy Hagar-backed Cabo Wabo opened in Granite Park in 2008 — then closed four months later. That venue still exists, but it's seen several owners and name changes. It's been The Memphis Blues Barrel Room, The Edge and Rome nightclubs and most recently Club Eva.

It has never really lived up to its promise.

The difference here (and it pains me to say it) is location. River Park carries a cachet that would lend credence to the venture, not the other way around. In return, having a music venue would bring some much-needed cultural arts capital to the area.

Of course, this is all wish-list stuff, just for sake of conversation. I'd be remiss if I didn't steer people toward the 20 or so venues that already exist (and point out that they are in downtown Fresno and the Tower District to boot).

For a place that many consider to be the entertainment hub of Fresno, River Park's lack of a viable live music venue is glaring. If done correctly, having this kind of venue in the center of River Park could be transformational.


This columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @joshuatehee on Twitter and Instagram. Read his blog at Fresnobeehive.com

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