Center stage in downtown Kent

Joe Shearer

Local concert venue boosts city’s economy

Richele Charlton stands behind the bar at the Kent Stage before a Batdorf and Rodney concert earlier this year. The Stage provides an economic boost for restaurants and shops in Kent. Leslie L. Cusano | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Looking at the numerous photos of musicians (both legends and relative newcomers) on the walls in the dimly-lit lobby, one could assume the Kent Stage has a rich, long history in the downtown community. And while it opened as a movie theater called the Flannigan and Steele Theater in 1927, it only became the Kent Stage when the non-profit organization Western Reserve Folk Arts Association took over in 2002.

From Bo Diddley to Bo Bice, and Joan Baez to India Arie, the Stage has seen a lot in its six-year history. Tom Simpson, along with his wife, Richele Charlton, owns the property and is the director of the organization that keeps the doors of the venue – mostly, but not exclusively, dedicated to bringing in folk musicians – open. Without giving a figure, Simpson said they do this at a “great loss.”

Not lost is the economic impact this building has in the surrounding area. As Simpson put it, when people come to the Stage, “they don’t just come in and buy a ticket to the show.” The people he referred to aren’t, for the most part, Kent residents, as Simpson said visitors from 39 states and nearly 300 cities have seen performers at the Stage.

The reason for these out-of-towners is simple.

“I think it’s because the people we book are not playing Cleveland one night, Pittsburgh the next night, Philly the next night,” Simpson said. “These people have fans that travel to see them because they’re not on tour all the time. The average Kent person’s not going to walk across the street to see Melanie (Safka), but we’ll have people come from all over the place to see someone like that. They love her.”

And, when those people arrive in Kent, they will do something predictable – spend money. According to a study by Americans for the Arts, a non-profit organization for advancing the arts, someone attending a non-profit arts and culture event spends an average of $27.79 – ticket prices not included – at nearby restaurants, retail stores, parking garages and hotels.

Although impossible to calculate exact amounts, with about 31,000 tickets sold so far this year, the Stage has generated roughly $860,000 for the area using the Americans for the Arts figure.

The restaurateurs especially benefit from this, Simpson said.

“They know when we have a show,” he said. “They might not know beforehand, but they know afterwards that there was an event here. They do great dinner business.”

Kevin Long, who owns the Pufferbelly Ltd. restaurant on Franklin Ave., said he frequently looks at the concert schedule online to ensure he doesn’t get caught off guard like he has in the past.

“You learn from your mistakes,” he said.

Depending on which performer plays that night, Long said they usually get “a real nice push.”

“People – they do dinner, and then they do a show,” he said. “They have to eat, so they make a whole night of it.”

Likewise, the less formal atmosphere at Ray’s Place across the street draws an influx of patrons on the nights some of these performers stroll through town. Manager B.J. Melin said the restaurant is at times overstaffed to “expect the unexpected.”

For events such as shows at the Stage, Melin said the menu cutoff times work great for business. Dinner ends at 10 p.m., and appetizers are served through midnight.

“We’ll see a lot of the people going to the concert getting a bite to eat,” Melin said. “Then after the concert, they’ll usually swing back and have some appetizers or a few beers. This is like a central meeting area for them.”

The best news for places like these is that the 42nd Kent State Folk Festival takes place Nov. 6-15. The seven-day event (no happenings are scheduled for Nov. 9, 10 and 12.) will bring numerous shows to the Stage, including ‘folkabilly’ singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith on the last night.

Simpson said in 2001, the Folk Festival took place on campus, in Cleveland and in other areas. The city wanted to bring some of that downtown, and out of that, along with Simpson’s efforts, came the Kent Stage. However, it wasn’t that easy, as Simpson said a gentleman from Canton also wanted to buy the building and use it for a pool hall.

“We had like one month to get it together – to buy a half million dollar building,” Simpson recounted. “They were going to level the theater out and just put a bunch of pool tables in there. And that’s what would’ve been here before, bringing no money. There would be no economic development money, or return on investment. People wouldn’t spend $24 a piece (in the surrounding area) to shoot pool.”

The Stage came to be as a result of the Folk Festival, and so it returns the favor, acting as an anchor for the festival each year. But in between, its other contributions do not go unnoticed by neighboring businesses.

Whether he’s working or has a night off to catch a show such as Leon Redbone, Long said the Kent Stage means more to the community than music.

“They made something out of that,” he said. “They brought something back to Kent. That is great for the whole downtown – the whole economy.”

Contact public affairs reporter Joe Shearer at [email protected].