Indie-folk duo the Indigo Girls took the stage in front of a sold-out Harvester Performance Center on April 24, 2014. It was the Rocky Mount music hall’s official grand opening and the first of many full houses since.
Harvester officials celebrated the venue’s fifth anniversary last month, touting the combination of iconic entertainers and local economic development, while looking forward to more of the same in the years to come. The Roanoke Times’ Casey Fabris wrote about all that in an April 17 piece that you can read at bit.ly/2Gvgfk2, in case you missed it.
It’s a remarkable story, and an unlikely one, too. Here’s why it worked.
The question in the beginning was: Who is going to drive out to Rocky Mount enough times to keep that thing afloat? It turns out that there are plenty of people with disposable income in Southwest Virginia and Piedmont North Carolina (and beyond) willing and able to make a haul, often there and back, to see famous musical performers in a relatively intimate setting.
It’s a rare feat, though. Imagine a would-be venue owner coming into a small town, buying a building for nearly $250,000, investing nearly $3 million in a complete renovation, then booking high-dollar entertainment in hopes that people would drive long distances to see the shows. The odds for survival are longer than LeBron James’ wingspan.
We have actually seen it happen in Roanoke, very recently, at the short-lived Column Stage. A couple of strangers to the Star City moved in and plunked down $288,000 for the dilapidated former church that stands at Church Avenue and Fifth Street, in Southwest Roanoke. They didn’t reveal how much they spent on renovations, but a tour of the interior just before its August 2018 opening made it clear that they had spent a lot. The combination music venue and restaurant, though, could not withstand weak crowds (the list of bands on the bill was not, how should we say, scintillating) and closed before the new year.
But the Harvester’s fate was tied to advantages that Column Stage’s was not. For starters, it was a town project, funded in large part by civic money. And Rocky Mount had visionary leaders in Matt Hankins, the assistant town manager, and Steve Angle, the mayor. Hankins had the idea for the Harvester, and Angle — a true music fan who gives performers a proper Rocky Mount welcome before introducing them to their audiences — helped shepherd the idea through a skeptical town council.
Hankins had the good sense to hire Gary Jackson away from Roanoke’s Kirk Avenue Music Hall to run the place. A small staff of full-timers and a battery of volunteers make the shows a great experience, but good luck finding another version of Jackson around here. The deeply experienced music promoter has said he came from the D.C. area to live in Roanoke simply because his wife wanted to live closer to where she grew up.
The town took advantage of tobacco commission money and sold historic tax credits, but invested $1.5 million of the taxpayers’ money in the renovation. It got an absolute jewel in return, a place that sounds fantastic, looks inviting and is set up nicely for the acts performing there (full disclosure: I am a drummer and harmony singer who has played the Harvester a few times and am well familiar with the green room setup). One way to think of the Harvester is as a much smaller version of Roanoke’s and Salem’s arenas, but with better beer and better (though sometimes significantly more expensive) sight lines.
From there, it’s been a matter of patience. It is only in the past couple of years that the venue has proven out.
Fabris reported that in 2016 and 2017, the town covered building and personnel costs, while the shows themselves turned a profit. The proposed 2019-20 budget recommends that Rocky Mount contribute $355,484 to the venue — a 10 percent reduction from last fiscal year — with the venue for the first time in its history paying rent, $7,100 per month. That’s a pretty bright sign that the venue is winning, while also providing positive experiences in a Southwest Virginia town that badly needed a hook.
Tally it all up, and it’s great news for Rocky Mount, and for live music fans.