Monday, June 1, 2009

Sweet Deal for Sweetwater?

I had the pleasure of speaking to a community group last week about Marin's rock history. Afterward, the first question from the audience was about Sweetwater. What's going on with the long-closed club in Mill Valley? Is one of Marin's rock 'n' roll institutions ever going to reopen?

Good question. The owners of Sweetwater have been vowing to reopen since they lost their lease and shut down the original club in September 2007 after 37 years on Throckmorton Avenue.

That was more than 1/2 years ago. It looked hopeful when a banner went up on the site of what was the proposed new Sweetwater, just around the corner on Miller Avenue from the old one.

It promised in big bold letters that Sweetwater would open there soon, in a former gift and home furnishings shop at 32 Miller Ave. But when months passed, times got tough and remodeling work stopped, someone crossed out the "soon" and wrote "when?" in green spray paint.

Lately, Sweetwater fans had a new reason to be alarmed when the banner disappeared entirely and a "for lease" sign appeared in the window of the partially refurbished storefront.

There were so many rumors and so much speculation flying around that the club's owners, Becky and Thom Steere, avoided going downtown so they wouldn't be barraged with questions and accusations.

As it happens, they blame the bad economy, government regulations and unanticipated cost overruns for the delays.

"We've mortagaged our house three times," Becky Steere said. "It's extremely hurtfiul to hear some of this stuff people are saying."

For everyone who has been as worried as I've been that Sweetwater may be gone forever, I'm happy to report that there's light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn't an oncoming train.

The good news is that the Steeres have been in serious discussions with Mill Valley Live Arts, the nonprofit organization that operates the popular 142 Throckmorton Theatre.

Under the new management concept they're discussing, Sweetwater would also become a nonprofit venue under Mill Valley Live Arts. In essence, Sweetwater and 142 Throckmorton would be sister entertainment operations under the same umbrella.

"The good thing is that 142 Throckmorton is already quite successful in its programming, and I think Sweetwater would add another venue for the community that's smaller and would allow us to present acts that wouldn't fit well into the larger venue," Larry Goldfarb, chair of Mill Valley Live Arts, said.

This potential breakthrough is being hailed as an exciting new development by everyone concerned, and it could result in the new Sweetwater opening again in a matter of a few months.

I proposed something along these lines for Sweetwater some time ago after visiting Passim's, a historic nonprofit nightclub in Cambridge, Mass. But ideas and reality are two different things. What matters in the end is that all the principals are behind it, including the investors, and they appear to be - at least in concept.

"Having the nonprofit behind us would be a nice thing instead of Thom and I busting our butts every month to make it work, to be able to pay the bills," Becky Steere told me. "It's a good model. It would be a nice community thing. I've never given up hope. And now It looks like it's going to happen."

According to her, fans of the old Sweetwater needn't worry about the club losing it's roots rock character. Under the agreement, she said, Sweetwater would continue to operate as a full bar with live music.

Billionaire Warren Hellman, who bankrolls the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, is one of Sweetwater's investors.

"He, like many other investors and fans of Sweetwater, would love to see it reopen," said Lora Blum, Hellman's attorney. "And if a nonprofit organization like Mill Valley Live Arts can make that happen, he would definitely support that effort."

There are some legal complications and other negotiating hurdles, including agreements on financial terms. But Sweetwater has such cach and is of such cultural importance that money does not appear to be much of an object.

"If we could reach terms, we have donors in place who are pretty committed to giving or getting the money to accomplish this," Goldfarb said. "I think these donors have the financial resources to do so, and they have expressed their desire for it to happen."

One of the key people in all of this is Lucy Mercer, the founder and artistic director of the 142 Throckmorton Theatre. She has been instrumental in pulling people together in order to save something we all value while at the same time building a nonprofit cultural organization of which we can enjoy and be proud.

"It's not a done deal," she said. "There's still the paperwork to go through, but overall, it does create a win-win for everyone involved."

Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at; follow him on Twitter at

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