Filling the Music Venue Void

By Beacon Staff

Over the last year plans for two new performance venues in Kalispell – the Glacier Performing Arts Center and the Liberty Theater – have stalled. And in Whitefish, an established live music hot spot has disappeared. Yet local arts organizers say the Flathead Valley is only one or two venues away from becoming a central arts hub and, until one is built, other organizations have stepped up and offered everything from symphony music to Alice Cooper.

GPAC’s organizers had hoped the center would be that boon for the live music scene and broader arts community. But after a donation push over the past several months failed to bring in any new large donors, the group recently gave up its biggest donation to date and pushed back its timeline.

In March, organizers of the long-proposed center revamped their building plans – scaling down in size and costs – and expected to receive answers from several possible donors the organization had been courting over the previous year. If there were enough positive replies, efforts would continue in earnest. If not, they said they would reconsider whether the community was able to support the effort.

At that time, the organization had raised about $5 million after almost four years – a significant amount for a nonprofit in the Flathead Valley, but well short of the $20 million needed. The organization’s largest donation, a $4 million gift offered in spring of 2006, came with the agreement that construction would begin by December 2008.

But when this summer’s push didn’t draw enough donors, and it became obvious the group wouldn’t make that deadline, the GPAC board let that donation, and a few smaller ones, go.

“There were other groups asking that person for donations. It wasn’t fair for us to tie up his money, pretending that we’d make it from $5 million to $20 million in four months,” Jayson Peters, GPAC’s board president, said. “The organization is still active and fundraising. The center will still happen. I think some folks involved were just too optimistic about how soon.”

“We were trying to grow an apple tree and we had a little seedling about six inches high,” he added, “but everybody already wanted an apple.”

Peters remains confident that a large theater project will eventually succeed in Kalispell, saying that the need and support – if not, financial – already exist in the community. A 1,100-seat theater, he said, would fill a niche for a larger, professional performance hall with amenities suitable for traveling Broadway productions, large concerts and Glacier Symphony and Chorale performances, as well as smaller community groups and private events.

“What we want to do is create a venue so that events like the jazz festival don’t have to be at Snappy’s and the mall, or so that when you leave a beautiful symphony performance you don’t walk out into the hallways of the high school where you’re surrounded with lockers,” Peters said.

GPAC isn’t the only live music and arts venue that’s fallen behind schedule.

Last September, Phil Harris, who owns Stadium 14 theaters and the Strand and Liberty theaters in downtown Kalispell, said he hoped to turn the Liberty into a major concert venue with sophisticated sound, lighting and acoustics by this spring.

The Liberty’s doors are still closed, though, as Harris is now working to create a nonprofit organization to raise funds for the renovation and upkeep of the theater. He’s in the process of determining a financial goal and fundraising plan, and hopes to have the theater operating by next spring.

When it does open, the Liberty will host comedians, lecture series and whatever else that can make good use of the 425 seats and proposed 1,600-square-foot stage, Harris said. There’s an obvious need for that type of entertainment and venue, he added.

“It’s pretty basic demand,” Harris said. “The largest population lives in Kalispell, but there’s nothing in Kalispell. Everything like this is in Whitefish.”

But entertainment options in Whitefish have suffered in the past year, too.

With performers like the Gourds, Sam Bush and North Mississippi All Stars, Flanagan’s Central Station drew bigger bands than Whitefish has ever seen and helped give the valley some degree of relevance in Montana’s music scene. It was also a hub for talented local musicians.

But the downtown club couldn’t stay on the right side of the local police and the state liquor authorities, and last September it closed its doors after a three-year run. The old Flanagan’s building remains vacant.

“If Flanagan’s could get taken over by someone who would do the same type of thing, I think it would do a lot toward putting the valley on track to getting some really good music,” Donnie Clapp, Whitefish Mountain Resort’s public relations manager, said. “For us, though, it was just too much. We have enough going on trying to run a ski resort that we didn’t really have the ability to be concert organizers and promoters, too.”

Last summer, the resort held a concert series unlike anything it had tried for nearly a decade, Clapp said. But despite big-name shows, the concert series struggled. About 4,500 came to the four concerts combined and half of that number went to the Marshall Tucker Band show alone. This year, the resort did not host the concert series.

“We’d be open to someone else who wanted to organize live music for the mountain, but it’s too much extra work for our staff,” Clapp said.

Despite the setbacks, the live music scene is far from dead in the Flathead.

There’s still music every week at smaller venues like the Garden Bar in Bigfork and Red’s Wines and Blues in Kalispell. This summer, hundreds of people have gathered in Kalispell’s Depot Park and Columbia Falls’ Marantette Park to listen to local musicians.

Plus, Raceway Park’s summer concert series drew acts like Blue Oyster Cult, Foghat, Eddie Money, John Waite and Alice Cooper to the Flathead this year. The Glacier Symphony and Chorale continues to grow, enjoying one of its best fundraising efforts over the past season and holding its first-ever Festival Amadeus, a week-long series of concerts with local and national symphony talents.

Still, none of those venues bring in the big names like Flanagan’s did and people like Harris and GPAC organizers hope to. For the Flathead to build its entertainment culture it will need a few more solid music venues, according to those involved.

“Missoula is trying to build a similar venue to GPAC,” Peters said. “The difference is they’d like to have one and I think we actually really, seriously need one up here. I have no doubt this project and others will succeed, and when they do it will be to the great benefit of this community.”