Live performances began spilling out the doors of The Blue Note onto Ninth Street four years ago, when Richard King, the club’s owner, first got permission from the city to close the street between Broadway and Walnut Street.
King and The Blue Note have hosted eight concerts since that time — five of them last summer, including one with Wilco that drew 3,000 people.
“We’re in the process of building an event for downtown that’s not like any other we have,” King said.
That process continues tonight, when King and MU student Dan Fletcher will sponsor Block Rock to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Columbia. Singer/songwriter Ben Kweller will perform, along with the bands Hockey Night, Dadbot! and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.
Fletcher envisioned Block Rock as an outdoor concert but had not settled on a location when he approached King, who suggested that the event be held on Ninth Street. King then went to the Columbia City Council to get approval to close the street for Block Rock, plus five other shows King is planning for this summer.
Despite opposition from the Columbia Fire Department, which complained that closing off Ninth Street for six nights could present a public safety hazard, the request sailed through City Council. Carrie Gartner, director of the Special Business District, said the council’s support reflects the city’s commitment to promote downtown Columbia.
But Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said these types of outdoor concerts belong in a park or stadium, not in a historical district where buildings are close together and some lack sprinkler systems. He said the inability of fire trucks to access the street during the show risks “a potential loss of property and a potential loss of life.”
“Last year, we had more people than anyone anticipated, and we could not have gotten an emergency vehicle down there,” Sapp said. “We’re supportive of the arts, of music, but we have to weigh in on other issues and say, ‘If you do this, there may be a conflict.’”
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm doesn’t share Sapp’s anxiety over the closing of downtown streets for large crowds to enjoy live music. He said despite a few minor problems in the past, the shows have not been a problem from the police’s view. Last year, the stage at the Wilco show faced north, toward the residential neighborhoods between Walnut and Rogers streets, prompting several residents to file noise complaints. King has agreed to turn the stage around for this summer’s shows, which Boehm agreed should decrease the noise in those neighborhoods.
Gartner said that not only do the Ninth Street concerts draw more people downtown, they also please the people who already live there. Right now, Gartner said, there are not enough second- and third-floor apartments downtown to meet the demand.
Mills Menser, who, with his father, owns 12 apartments on Broadway, said there has not been a vacancy in one of his apartments in 15 years and the waiting list is long.
“The demand is huge, and it has always been huge,” he said.
Gartner said the Special Business District is gathering information on the number of people living in downtown residences. She estimates that downtown houses between 200 and 250 people, but that figure includes residents of the Tiger Hotel.
“It’s not just college students that want to live downtown,” she said. “It’s young professionals and those who want to be in the middle of the action. It’s singles, couples without children and even retirees who don’t want to worry about mowing the lawn anymore that want to be in the middle of things.
“The people who live in The District are not the people who go to bed at nine at night with a glass of hot milk. They come for the good restaurants, the music, the bar scene. People who would be bothered by the concerts wouldn’t live there.”
Menser said his residents have not complained about noise from live music.
While King’s business benefits from the Ninth Street concerts, the shows also help the other downtown businesses while boosting the Columbia economy, he said. The concerts promote The Blue Note brand, and even though he might make money through alcohol sales, King said the real benefit is for The District as a whole.
“If just one person goes to a restaurant and buys a sandwich or goes into a retail shop, that’s a great benefit,” King said.
C.K. Hoenes, owner of W.g. Grinders on North Ninth Street, is one of King’s partners in what they’re now calling the Ninth Street Summer Fests. The concerts don’t directly help his restaurant, he said, but that isn’t the point.
“The idea is not to bring business to my store,” he said, “The idea is to bring people downtown.”
But Coffee Zone owner Osama Yanis said the concerts do both for his store.
“It’s good for all of downtown,” he said. “It brings lots of people. And it’s very good for business. Even if they don’t buy something this time, they’ll buy something next time.”
Tonight’s Block Rock could become an annual event, Fletcher said, although he would prefer that it happen in the fall when students aren’t preoccupied with final exams.
“Outdoor concerts are a blast,” Fletcher said. “And Ninth Street is the ideal place to do this in Columbia.”
Meanwhile, King has already booked several acts for the Summer Fests, which are scheduled for a Wednesday of each month, beginning May 31 and concluding September 20. Although the exact schedule has not been finalized, Los Angeles guitar player Dave Alvin, Springfield “hillbilly band” Big Smith and St. Louis-based funk band Dr. Zhivegas have agreed to perform.
Those bands, King said, fit his goal of offering music that is “fun and user-friendly.”
“A punk rock band screaming obscenities is not what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “I want bands and people that are having fun.”