By Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe
Imagine a place in downtown Amherst where you can hear a jazz band play on a stage with first-class sound and lighting, while patrons sit at tables enjoying beverages prepared by skillful bartenders.
This place might also be the site of a poetry slam for college students. It might attract nationally known musical artists, attracting people from all over western Massachusetts. It could host a science night that brings together families and faculty from local colleges and universities. How about a place where you could hear TED talks? Or high school ensembles sharing their talents? Or see the work of local artists?
The 4,060-square-foot venue – on the upper level of the former High Horse at 44 North Pleasant Street – will be called The Drake in honor of the former hotel and bar at 85 Amity St. that was converted to apartments in 1985. Its memory has been kept alive by the graffiti on the back of the Amherst Center’s brick facade reading “Save the Drake; For Willy! For Humanity!” (Willie Whitfield was the Drake’s bartender.)
As Gabrielle Gould, director of Amherst’s Business Improvement District (BID), showed us around the site and described plans for the Drake, our view of piles of old insulation, layers of concrete dust, electrical conduits sticking up from the floor, random junk and disgusting old carpeting was replaced by her vision of an attractive venue alive with music and chatter.
“I want to flood the downtown with arts and culture and make it destination-worthy,” she told us. “No town can thrive unless its downtown thrives.” Gould envisions several layouts that could accommodate up to 200 people for music and dancing or 185 people for jazz or chamber music concerts. It will have a lounge area in the back where friends can chat without shouting over the music, she said. “You could meet the love of your life on the dance floor and then go sit there with martinis.”
The Drake will have a bar, perhaps with different cocktail menus depending on the type of show and audience, but will not be open when there’s no programming. Renowned Lincoln Allen, formerly of the Alvah Stone, will be the bar manager. The Drake will not offer food, as the goal is to attract people to downtown Amherst who then patronize existing restaurants. Gould has talked to restaurant owners about a cooperative system of charging customers.
The plan is starting to take shape. The Downtown Amherst Foundation, a non-profit entity established by the BID, recently received a $175,000 state grant. That pilot grant enabled the project to negotiate and pay for a three- year lease from landlord Barry Roberts, to hire Kuhn-Riddle Architects to draft the layout and design, and to contract with Tiger Web for web design and ticketing system.
Gould is working with Laudable Productions to book artists. The BID itself has donated funds toward the lighting and sound systems developed by Klondike Sound. Roberts and the Foundation are working with W.S. Pickering & Son on a new HVAC system.
Finally, Ludlow-based sculptor Kamil Peters, designer of the High Horse logo and the cow sculpture on North Pleasant Street, will create artwork.
According to Gould, the timing is right for this venture. Downtown Amherst could benefit from the economic boost that such an attractive venue could provide, and many artists are unhappy with the performance spaces of similar size in Northampton.
And the project is more than a pipedream. Landlord Roberts supports it, and Rep. James McGovern said on a recent tour of the site that this is exactly that kind of project that the federal recovery money should be used for. The Downtown Amherst Foundation has set up a Patronicity site that had raised more than $32,000 and has received a $10,000 matching grant from the Mill District. The foundation is also applying to the Town of Amherst for $300,000 from the millions of dollars we’re receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act.
But where would all these people coming from out of town for the musical shows, not to mention to the Amherst Cinema, park their cars? Gould supports the construction of a parking garage behind the CVS. (A zoning change that would enable this is due to come before the Town Council soon.) It will be a great day when we need to build a garage because we have so many visitors, she said. But the Drake will not wait.
What the Drake hopes to supply – an inviting, family-friendly music and performance venue – has topped every wish list on every survey of what Amherst needs for the past 10 years, Gould said. Depending on how rapidly funds are raised, the Drake could open sometime this winter.
We can’t wait!
To learn more, visit https://downtownamherstfoundation.org/thedrake and the
Patronicity site, https://www.patronicity.com/projectthe_drake__downtown_amherst_live_music_venue