Drake Project Called a Game Changer for Amherst and Its Downtown
You might call it a development of note. That’s one poetic way to describe the transformation of the old High Horse restaurant space in the former First National Bank of Amherst building into a live performance and music space that will be called the Drake in a nod to a former downtown landmark. Like its namesake, a hotel with a famous bar, the new venue is expected to be a destination, a creator of lasting memories, and a key contributor to vibrancy downtown.
Barry Roberts isn’t sure how long the graffiti has been there.
He does know that it’s been a fixture — and a talking point — since long before he bought the property it graces, which now houses the Amherst Cinema, Amherst Coffee, and a number of other businesses in the heart of downtown Amherst, and that was 15 years ago.
And he suspects that this message has been ‘refreshed’ a few times over the years, because it’s as easy to read now as it was years ago.
It says ‘Save the Drake — for Willie, for Humanity,’ a reference to the legendary hotel and bar located in its basement, known as the Rathskeller, and its equally famous bartender, Willie. (Just about every student who attended UMass or Amherst College in the ’60s or ’70s has a Drake story. Or 100 of them.)
Roberts and others collaborating on an ambitious initiative in another property he owns, the former First National Bank of Amherst, are not exactly saving the Drake as most remember it. But they are reviving the name and creating a venue they expect will be just as successful when it comes to making memories that will live on for decades.
Indeed, the Drake is the name going over the door of a live performance and music venue that will go into space last occupied by the High Horse restaurant. The facility, to be operated by the Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF), a 501(c)(3) that was founded to bring arts and culture to the Amherst area, is due to open April 26. and when it does, it is expected to have an immediate and profound impact on Amherst and its downtown, said Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the town’s Business Improvement District (BID), who played a key role in putting the many pieces of the puzzle together for this project.
She told BusinessWest that repeated studies revealed that what was missing from the landscape in Amherst’s downtown was a venue for live music, one that could compete with several such facilities across the Connecticut River in Northampton and not only keep Amherst residents and area college students in that community, but bring people from across Western Mass. — and perhaps the Northeast — to the town.
“We see people consistently going across the bridge and spending anywhere from $60 to $400 a night because of the amount of entertainment and music that is in that area,” Gould said. “For me, creating a vibrant downtown has to be experience-driven, and if you’re not providing arts and culture and experiences surrounding that, what is there to come here for?”
“This is a game changer — an absolute game changer,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID, adding that the facility has the potential to become what the Drake was — a landmark, a drawing card, and an attraction that will create memories for generations of people.
While doing that, the Drake will play a key role in an ongoing resurgence, or comeback story for downtown Amherst, said Gould, adding that the district lost a number of businesses — 15 by her count — during the pandemic. Many were restaurants, but there was some retail as well, she noted, adding that almost that many new businesses have been added in recent months, bringing vibrancy and excitement to the area.
Overall, she sees the Drake project as one very important chapter in an emerging story involving a new and more vibrant downtown Amherst, one that is well-positioned for what happens post-COVID.
“There’s a future here that is unlike anything that anyone could have envisioned five years ago,” she said, adding that the pieces are falling into place for this community that was so hard-hit by the pandemic.
As the work to ready the Drake for its opening enters its final stages, BusinessWest talked with Roberts and Gould about how this intriguing project came to fruition and what it means for a downtown that has been in search of a spark and now has one.
As she talked about the Drake project, Gould noted that it has been a product of good fortune, or good timing, in many respects.
Elaborating, she said ideal space (the former High Horse location) became available at essentially the same time resources, many of them in the form of pandemic-relief monies, were being made available to communities such as Amherst as they sought to recover from COVID and its many side effects.
“Right now, there’s a firehose of funds available — COVID funding, the Build Back Better plan … everything,” she said, adding that she doubts whether this project would have become reality so quickly in more normal times. “We’re not looking for silver linings, but we’ll take what we can get.”
But mostly, this project came about because of recognized need for such a facility in Amherst, she said, and a rare opportunity to make it happen. This need is spelled out in large letters — quite literally — on the website devoted to the Drake.
“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot.”
“For decades, the Amherst community as asked for, begged for, and sought out a space for a live performance and music venue,” the passage reads. “The Amherst BID and the Downtown Amherst Foundation have listened and are ready to build for the future. Arts and culture will be the economic and destination driver Amherst needs to head into 2022.”
It goes on to say the Drake is the first project toward building Amherst as a destination for locals and visitors alike, hinting strongly that there will be others, including a performance shell for the south common downtown, an initiative that has been a priority for the BID and the DAF for some time now and is still very much on the drawing board, said Gould.
But for now, the Drake is taking center stage, literally and figuratively.
“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot,” she said, noting, again, that this project is the byproduct of good timing and recognized need. “This was our opportunity; Barry having this space become available was just beyond perfect, because there really is no other available space in the downtown area that would lend itself as perfectly as this space to the concept that we wanted to go forward with.”
With the site secured, a proposal for a performance venue was put together and presented to a number of funding sources, Gould went on, adding that $175,000 in seed money was awarded to the Amherst BID by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project. With that money, an attractive lease was secured, the architectural firm Kuhn Riddle was hired “at an incredibly reduced rate,” to design the venue, and additional fundraising efforts were initiated.
Overall, the buildout costs for the project are a projected $750,000, said Gould, adding that the fundraising goal is $1.3 million, with just over $1 million secured to date.
It has come from a variety of sources, including $250,000 in local, community support in amounts ranging from $10 to $50,000; a $100,000 cash gift plus a Steinway piano from Amherst College; American Rescue Plan Act funds, local and state grants, and other sources. “You name it, we’ve gone after it,” Gould said.
Speaking of naming it, that was another task on the do-to list, said Gould, noting that there were several contenders being considered when someone suggested naming it after the famous bar immortalized in that graffiti, which is asked about on an almost daily basis at Amherst Coffee.
“And I thought, ‘why not play off that nostalgia of a bygone era?’” Gould told BusinessWest. “Another thing that will bring us together again after this pandemic is community and nostalgia, and going back a little bit. So while we’re going forward, let’s pay some homage to the past.”
While construction, fundraising, and naming efforts have been the most visible aspects of the project to date, the BID and DAF have also been putting together an operations plan, said Gould, noting that Laudable Productions, which already works with several area venues, has been hired to book performers for the Drake, which will be operated as a nonprofit, with all proceeds going to future performances.
A soft opening is set for April 26, featuring the Northampton Jazz Workshop, also known as the Green Street Trio, she noted, adding that the lineup for the spring and summer will be announced in early April.
“The idea is to program events for five or six nights a week,” said Roberts, adding that such a hefty slate of shows will have a profound impact on the downtown and the many types of businesses to be found there.
Indeed, while the Drake is about live performances and music, it is really about economic development, said both Roberts and Gould, noting that, while those phrases ‘game changer’ and ‘driving force’ are often used in business and development circles, they both apply here. Indeed, they believe this project will succeed in not only keeping people in Amherst or bringing more people to it, but propel the town forward as various constituencies work to bring a new parking facility to the downtown area.
“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great. We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.”
While Amherst still boasts a number of fine restaurants and a variety of retail, Gould said, it needs more — specifically in the form of arts and entertainment — to be a true destination on par with its neighbor across the Coolidge Bridge.
“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great,” she explained. “We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.
“We will bring performers into this really intimate, beautiful, small space that you will never get to see in a venue like this, and for the ticket price we’ll be able to offer,” she went on. “People will hopefully be coming from New York, Boston, Pennsylvania, and all over.”
Getting the Message
Getting back to that graffiti on the side of the Amherst Cinema building — which will be recreated in neon on one wall in the new Drake — Roberts doesn’t know when it was spray-painted there or by whom.
But he does know that he always wanted to save the message and maintain it for future generations even as he redeveloped the site for new uses. It is a link to the past, he said, and one that has also become an inspiration for those securing a vibrant future for this area.
The Drake, as tens of thousands of students and area residents remember it, isn’t being saved, technically speaking. But the spirit of that landmark, that institution, will live on in an important way.
Not as a name over a door, but as a powerful force in moving Amherst forward and making it a destination and source of memories.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]