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Victoria to lose unique music hub

Fort Street Café loses lease, closing doors after six years
Owners Jon Perkins (left), Melissa Byrnes and Benji Duke share a final cheers.

Fort Street Café loses lease, closing doors after six years

The Fort Street Café has announced it will close Dec. 15, after the building’s landlord told the six-year-old business that it is no longer deemed suitable for the premises.

Despite attempted negotiations and a previously good relationship, the building’s owner, Garnett Rancier, has asked the popular café to vacate by the end of the year, which will bring an end to Victoria’s only licensed all-ages grassroots music and arts hub.

When reached on Thursday, Nov. 1, Rancier says, "The rental agreement [with The Fort] is coming to an end. We are not renewing it for quite a number of concerns and reasons. Firstly, the safety issue is at the forefront and the old building does not meet the needs of where they want to go. The building was rented as a restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. It has evolved into something the premises were not rented for."

Rancier, who also owns BC Shavers & Hobbies located in the same building, adds, "The people at The Fort Café have been great friends and tenants. I am also sorry to see them close here and hope they will reopen in a more suitable location."

While The Fort owners initially searched for an alternative venue when they heard the news a few months ago, closure and start-up costs — at an estimated $100,000 — make the move prohibitive for the small business, and the crew has decided to surrender.

“We are obviously sad, and I don’t think it has really sunk in yet — it’s the end of an era,” says Benji Duke, part owner. “There really is nothing more we can do now, and we have decided we are going to use this as an opportunity to move on to others things. Some of us want to start families, or get involved in the arts scene in other ways.”

The independent arts and music venue has played host to more than 3,300 stage performers, including bands, comedians, actors and charities, since owners Duke, Jon Perkins and Melissa Byrnes took over the space in 2007. While the venue has a food-primary liquor license, The Fort has long been considered one of the rarest opportunities for budding musicians in the community — acts are not charged to use the space or sound services, and the café gives door money to the artists after breaking even; more than $300,000 has gone directly into artists’ hands.

“We are very proud of what we have achieved over the last six years. We have grown the business from out of the walls; the room represents who we are and what we stand for. There has never been a pot of gold and we have never received funding … The venue has survived on respect and communication between the venue, the artists and the public.”

Duke, 36, who has acted as finance and entertainment manager, says the notice came as a surprise, but believes there was no incident or “bad blood” that caused it. However, he says negotiations in rent were not offered.

“When you own a building, you are entitled to decide what happens to it,” he says. “My main concern is that there is nowhere else for young musicians and bands to go in Victoria; there is no one who does what we do. There are 20 pubs in town playing Tom Petty cover bands, and that does not match the reality of the creativity we have in this city.”

The 80-person capacity venue employs nearly a dozen people, and has played host to a number of bands before they were (really) big, including Acres of Lions, Aidan Knight, Lola Parks, Maurice, Mike Edel, Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, The Children of Celebrities and The Chantrelles. It has also been home to the richly popular Sunday Lowdown, The Friday Quiz, Underground Comedy Fort, Drum Hang, Feminist Rock Camp, Victoria Film Festival and this year’s Singe Festival.

“The rug really was swept out from under us on this one,” says Perkins, 32, whose main role in the business has been food and health safety. “It would be one thing if we had a five-year exit plan, or even if we had something to sell, but for us to learn this and be out in just a few months leaves us with nothing, and no real contingency plan.”

Byrnes, 34, says she can still remember when the three were discussing plans for the space, which was leased originally as a food venue. The stage that now sits at the front of the café was then a storage closet full of carpet and lunch supplies.

“It was hard for me to picture some of their visions at first, but slowly it all came together,” says Byrnes, who has specialized as the space designer. “I really don’t know what I will do now. Just keep moving forward, somehow.”

While the three considered a furious fundraising campaign to open a new venue, they felt the amount needed placed unrealistic expectations on the community. That’s not to say they wouldn’t change their minds if $100,000 fell onto their stage — or if they could find another business to partner with in opening a new location. But, for now, with only six weeks left for fans to get that Fort Street fix, the group plans to host a number of fundraising events to offset closure costs — estimated at $10,000 — and has a call-out to bands to help on either Dec. 8, or the grand finale on Dec. 15.

“This really has been our labour of love, and we have invested our lives in this. We never had money, so we just let The Fort evolve and added to it as we could, bit by bit,” says Duke. “It hurts, but now we need to move onto something new … and we want to say thank you to our community for your support, your patience and your friendship.” M