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Some leeway needed to keep the boathouse afloat

The Waterloo Record by Cindy Ward 20 September 2013

We’ve all heard that the Boathouse was committed to supporting hundreds and hundreds of local musicians who could not find a venue — or an income — at any other establishment in this region. But what does “support” really mean?

In financial terms, this means Doyle always made sure the musicians got paid.

He was able to strike a magical balance between income and expenses, door charges and band payments for almost eight years. It’s quite a spectacular feat if we break it down.

Who believes a four-piece band can make a living doing a show for $50 each? I don’t think many would agree that’s a reasonable day’s wage. Yet somehow, Doyle managed to pay the musicians a fair wage and still break even for eight solid years.

What often gets lost in news stories is that the Boathouse is tiny, and with its current seating, there is often only room for about 70 paying guests. And most importantly, rather than jack up cover-charges and menu prices, Doyle kept prices at a reasonable level so that “collaborations” could naturally develop among musicians.

This has been the true beauty of the Boathouse. The argument is that if Fred Eaglesmith or Oh Susanna, for example, is playing the Boathouse, a $40 cover charge would deter most average-income paying guests and probably all local musicians. This means that not only would collaborations have died, but would also mean that only the “elite” in our region would have been able to afford to attend big name acts. Do we really want another venue that only brings us average folks out once a year?

What did change during Doyle’s reign was that the City of Kitchener increased his operating costs. What the city, and I think people in general, don’t quite understand is that in order to support the musical talent of this community, someone has to give a little. In this case, Doyle gave a lot.

He was expected to single-handedly support the local music community because he was a for-profit business. Yet, it is common knowledge that “the arts” don’t and can’t support themselves. When the Boathouse first opened its doors as a live music venue in 2004, the city seemed quite supportive of the Boathouse. Indeed, the operator at the time (just prior to Doyle) was charged less than $1,500 a month.

I have a sneaking suspicion that those at city hall thumbed their noses at Doyle, with ever-increasing operating cost expectations that could not allow the venue to remain at a break-even point.

What worries me most is that the city will likely hold these same expectations for any new tenant proposing to maintain the building as a local live-music venue.

This means that average-income folks like me and most of The Record’s readership will have to say one of two good-byes: 1) good-bye to reasonable door charges and menu prices; or 2) good-bye to good local talent — and hello to another bland chain restaurant.

Cindy Ward started the Boathouse in 2004 and operated it for about two years. She is a third year PhD candidate in social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on small and medium business operations with regard to sustainability.