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Katie McQuaid's Scene in Manchester: A new Rex Theatre could fix city's broken music scene

October 12. 2018 10:28PM
Peter Ramsey of the Palace Theatre looks around at an enormous amount of work needed at the old Rex Theatre on Amherst Street in Manchester on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

It’s Saturday night and you’re in the mood for some live music in Manchester. Maybe there’s a tribute band playing the Palace Theatre or a local cover band making its monthly round to your favorite bar.

But if you want to experience something new - a new band, a new sound, a new experience -  you’ll have to hope SNHU Arena has a big, but affordable, act booked. Otherwise you’ll have to head out of town.

I didn’t realize how deficient Manchester was in the live music department until I experienced shows at places like the Boston area’s Brighton Music Hall and The Sinclair. These smaller venues host indie and alternative bands every night of the week. For people who live there, it’s an effortless way to be exposed to something new and enjoy the very cathartic and connecting experience of live music in an intimate setting. For me, it’s a long car ride and infuriating hunt for parking.

Manchester’s missing music scene could soon be found if the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approve a plan that would have The Palace Theatre renovate and operate the Rex Theatre at 23 Amherst St.

The building is owned by Manchester Development Corp. (MDC), a non-profit that supports the economic development initiatives of the City under the direction of the Board of Mayor & Aldermen. It operates a fund that makes loans for projects with potential to create or retain jobs or enhance the tax base.

Under the agreement, MDC would loan the Palace Theatre the $1.7 million needed to renovate and fit up the dilapidated building into a 300-seat multi-use theater and function space. The Palace Theatre would repay that loan over 10 years, plus 2 percent interest annually as well as a yearly $7,500 payment in lieu of taxes. Renovations of the circa 1920 building are expected to take about a year.

“These dollars have a special use and this meets that use,” said Mayor Joyce Craig during my recent visit to her office with Palace Theatre President and CEO Peter Ramsey and MDC Chairman Will Craig.

Two separate potential buyers of the Rex, with similar visions for the space, have walked away in recent years. The renovations were just too costly. As it has sat empty for the last three years, MDC has paid about $15,000 a year in upkeep for the building.

Peter Ramsey of the Palace Theatre inside the old Rex Theatre on Amherst Street in Manchester on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MDC, the Palace Theatre and Mayor Joyce Craig do not want to see the historic building torn down or fall into the wrong hands. It was home to a couple less-than-reputable nightclubs before MDC scooped it up. Craig believes the Palace Theatre’s plan could entice more millenials to stay in the city and fuel more downtown business.

“This will just add to the excitement that we’re seeing,” said Craig.

Ramsey said there are hundreds of acts that would like to come to Manchester, but are too small to play the Palace. The Rex will serve a different audience than the Palace, catering to appetites for indie bands, alternative theater, and other performances.

“Our guess is we’ll bring 50,000 people downtown over a year,” he said. And Ramsey understands audiences. Under his leadership, the Palace Theatre continues to see year-over-year growth and record-breaking attendance. As a member of the theatre’s board of trustees, I am particularly proud of its success and I am eager to see the Palace team perform similar magic at The Rex.

Travis York thinks with the right “curator” The Rex could attract cool bands.

“There’s kind of a hole between Portland, Maine, Burlington, Vt. and Boston that Manchester could fill. There’s lots of bands that tour those markets on a Northeast swing,” said the president and CEO of marketing agency GYK Antler, a music aficionado with many ties to the industry.

York believes “music drives culture” and cities need arts and culture to get people to live and work here.

“I employ a lot of young people and I also employ a lot of creative people and they are interested in the arts,” he said. “There’s a big void in Manchester for live, original and current music.”

All parties involved in The Rex deal said taxpayers will not be on the hook if the theater loses money. Still, free-market purists may say the building should be sold to a private entity and put back on the tax rolls. Maybe there is a private business that would have better plans for it. But do we want to leave that to chance?

Will Craig, former Manchester Economic Development Director, pointed out The Rex’ proximity to the the Victory Street Parking Garage makes Amherst Street somewhat of a gateway to Elm Street for downtown visitors. Do want them to be welcomed by a well lit and thriving performing arts space? Or would we prefer to have them equate the Queen City with a dilapidated building, sketchy nightclub or parking lot?

I think the window of the Forbidden Fruit adult shop across the street is already enough to freak most people out.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen will are expected to vote on The Rex proposal at their Tuesday, Oct. 16, meeting at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.

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