Iced out: How various communities will be affected by Main Street Arena’s departure

UVA men’s hockey president Raffi Keuroglian says he was surprised by how many people were interested in club-level hockey in Charlottesville. The team practices Monday nights at Main Street Arena and will host playoffs there this month. Photo by Ron Paris UVA men’s hockey president Raffi Keuroglian says he was surprised by how many people were interested in club-level hockey in Charlottesville. The team practices Monday nights at Main Street Arena and will host playoffs there this month. Photo by Ron Paris

he Main Street Arena first opened as an ice rink in 1996. During its 20-year history it has hosted hockey, curling, conventions, roller derby, concerts and parties. It was also sometimes the subject of controversy because it often struggled to make a profit while sitting on some of Charlottesville’s most valuable real estate. Now, it is slated for demolition, and some members of Charlottesville’s quirkiest and most dedicated subcultures are worried.

In July 2010, local real estate investor Mark Brown purchased the building (then called The Charlottesville Ice Park) for $3 million. The business had been losing about $70,000 a year for the previous owners, Bruce Williamson and Roberta Williamson, and for several months there seemed to be a strong chance that Charlottesville’s ice sports would end entirely—including the UVA men’s hockey club. Brown immediately began exploring options for cutting costs and adding revenue.

One of the first things he did was add a bar by the entrance, which seems like a no-brainer today, but in ice rinks of this size bars are unusual. The upstairs event space, which had been briefly used for retail as the home of the Eloise clothing store, was converted into a night club and restaurant now known as The Ante Room. Brown also invested in special flooring that could be laid over the ice, so the rink could be used for conventions, large parties and even roller derby.

The rink became profitable, but Brown decided it was time to sell the building and listed it for $6.5 million in September. Jaffray Woodriff, a 1991 UVA alumnus who is the founder and CEO of Quantitative Investment Management, which manages a $3 billion hedge fund, made a $7 million offer on the arena in December. A press release issued December 29 from Payne, Ross and Associates said the land and building at 230 W. Main St. (the arena address) and the land and building at 215 W. Water St., the location of Escafé, were under contract by Taliaferro Junction LLC. A spokesperson confirmed plans to demolish the arena and erect an office building, rumored to become a tech incubator space.

Through his PR firm, Payne, Ross and Associates, Woodriff declined to be interviewed. But owner Susan Payne says, “The contract is being negotiated and there are some open issues.”

It is not clear whether Woodriff will allow the Main Street Arena, Escafé or The Ante Room to operate during any period while he is waiting for architectural plans to be completed and permits to be finalized.

Gathering place

Katie McCartney sat with a beer at the rink’s bar on a recent Monday night. Behind her, dozens of warmly dressed people walked—not skated—across the ice. McCartney is the president of the Blue Ridge Curling Club, and Monday nights are theirs at the rink.

Charlottesville seems like a strange place for a curling league. The sport, which involves pushing heavy granite stones across the ice, was invented in medieval Scotland and has grown in popularity around the world in places with cold winters and thick ice, especially Canada. But a curling community has grown here out of a mixture of Northern transplants and curious locals who watched Olympic curling on television and wanted to give it a try.

“I was looking for something to do on a Monday night,” McCartney says. “I came out of curiosity and got hooked and I’ve been playing the sport now for going on seven years.”

The Blue Ridge Curling Club currently has about 120 players who compete against other East Coast teams. Photo by Ron Paris
The Blue Ridge Curling Club currently has about 120 players who compete against other East Coast teams. Photo by Ron Paris

The club has about 120 players and competes against other organizations along the East Coast. As the players’ trips to the rink’s bar suggest, the club is as much about having fun as it is about competition.

“We have a very diverse skill level,” McCartney says, “which led us to host this social league where people can come out and have a beer and curl but also work on their game and get some coaching, and we’re able to do all those different things.”

It is hard to imagine how a curling club can exist without an ice rink, but McCartney is hopeful. In fact, everyone interviewed for this article expressed hope.

“When I first heard about [the sale], I was super stressed out. We’re a very new organization that’s trying to grow and establish ourselves,” she says. “…On the other hand, I love curling and the people that I curl with love it so we’re going to continue to do our sport and continue to take advantage of the space when we have it.”

McCartney believes there is enough interest in ice sports in the region that someone will build a new rink nearby. Meanwhile, if they have to they will make a deal with a rink in another city hours away. “Things can still go on in less-than-ideal circumstances,” she says, adding that the club is still actively recruiting new members. “I’m not super concerned about it disappearing from Virginia.

“I think it’s a big process that takes a lot of time and we are not a part of that decision,” she says. “As a result, we are super happy for the time we have to curl here and at some point we’ll start making plans for where we get to curl next. For me, the important thing is welcoming people who are curious about the sport and introducing it to them in a way that’s fun and interesting.”

Ante up

The same kitchen that produces food for the bar where McCartney sipped her beer and watched curlers also serves The Ante Room upstairs, whose entrance faces Water Street. Previously called The Annex, The Ante Room is the only music venue in Charlottesville that regularly features metal acts for the balkanized local metal community.

Black metal, grind core, speed metal and various other subgenres may sound the same to outsiders. To connoisseurs of metal, though, these varieties have very different styles and techniques. All depend heavily on advanced technical skill and speed by guitarists, bassists and drummers—and The Ante Room is open to all of them.

Bartender and metal musician Luke Smith spoke to C-VILLE hours before the doors opened for a three-act bill of black metal bands. [Editor’s note: We are saddened to report that Smith died suddenly, days after he was interviewed for this article; the cause of death is still being investigated. A tribute concert/celebration for Smith was held January 24 at The Ante Room.] Smith was the frontman for two metal bands, Salvaticus and Blooddrunk Trolls. When he first arrived in Charlottesville around 2012, there was no place for a metal band to play. The now-defunct Outback Lodge used to host metal but has since been demolished and redeveloped into the building that houses Sticks Kebob Shop.

“I started up Blooddrunk Trolls and The Annex popped up and I started talking to Jeyon Falsini [founder and manager of The Ante Room], and he said if you want to do something we’ll try it,” Smith said. “Jeyon’s open to booking anything. We did a series of shows together and it just started ramping up.”

The Ante Room hosts at least one metal night a month, sometimes with up to eight bands on a single bill.

“The thing about The Ante Room, being that there’s a built-in PA [system] and a full bar, it’s easier for a band to get paid and make money,” said Smith. “You can charge an $8 cover.” He said the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar has been friendly to metal bands, but the logistics are awkward.

“I’ve played there with three metal bands and there’s just too much gear [to fit on Twisted Branch’s stage and bring up the stairs],” Smith said. “I don’t know what we’d do [if The Ante Room closed], unless another establishment decided to start doing metal. The Ante Room is also big with the hip-hop community. …Jeyon has been necessary with cultivating the scene here, but I don’t really know where we’d go.”

Luke Smith’s death metal band Blooddrunk Trolls played a quadruple bill with grindcore bands Drugs of Faith and Antigama and heavy metal band Earthling in May 2015 at The Ante Room. Photo by Sallah Baloch
Luke Smith’s death metal band Blooddrunk Trolls played a quadruple bill with grindcore bands Drugs of Faith and Antigama and heavy metal band Earthling in May 2015 at The Ante Room. Photo by Sallah Baloch

Smith said Charlottesville’s larger, mainstream performance spaces have been unwilling to book metal. “They kind of want to bank on sure things versus taking a risk on a kind of niche scene that could possibly not draw as many people out,” he said.

A small, alternative space in the basement of the Jefferson Theater has recently been used for a weekly Goth Night run by Gopal and Angel Metro. Could that experimental space also be used for metal? Manager Danny Shea isn’t sure.

“Gopal has done a remarkable job transforming that area and in a small unconventional space,” Shea says by e-mail. “I’m not sure the hallway is the solution, but [I’m] certainly open to look into ways to cultivate music communities as I can in our venues and in town.”

Falsini has a philosophy of giving bands and genres a chance, even if there isn’t an obvious or immediate payoff. They get second chances. And even eighth chances.

“I think you should always try things,” Falsini says. “Always keep an open mind. The different rooms I’ve booked in the 10-plus years I’ve done this, I’ve always seen every room as a fresh [opportunity] for every band I’ve ever worked with. …I’ve noticed that frequency is the key. It takes about seven shows of a particular genre in order for the room to be known for that genre. So your first seven country shows might not knock it out of the park, but the eighth probably will.”

The Ante Room also hosts Latin dance nights that appeal to groups like The Charlottesville Salsa Club. No other music venue in Charlottesville regularly hosts events geared towards Charlottesville’s large Latino immigrant community and the Anglos who love their music and dance traditions.

Home base

Down the block from The Ante Room’s Water Street entrance is Escafé. Formerly located on the Downtown Mall where The Whiskey Jar is today, Escafé has been a gathering spot for Charlottesville’s gay community for decades. Private gay clubs with membership requirements have come and gone, but Escafé has remained as a public establishment with food, drinks and dancing for queer and straight communities.

The owners of the restaurant rent the building from owners who have reached an agreement with Taliaferro Junction to sell the building for demolition. Because Escafé was penalized twice last year by the ABC for not selling enough food in proportion to the drinks customers bought (55 percent of sales must come from food), the loss of its lease may be the final straw.

Longtime patron Jason Elliot stood in the courtyard under a drizzling rain in front of Escafé and pondered what it has meant to him.

“Escafé was actually the very first gay bar I ever went to, about 10 years ago,” Elliot says. “That was my first exposure to ‘gay after dark,’ if you will. And pretty quickly it became a home base. Any time I was in Charlottesville I had to go there to see friends who became family.”

Elliot, a UVA graduate, now works for the Virginia Department of Health as a counselor specializing in HIV prevention and treatment. Later, sitting out of the rain at a coffee shop a few blocks away, he opened up about what Escafé meant to him.

“It very quickly did become a place where I would come when I was feeling happy, when I was feeling sad,” Elliot says. “It really did become my second home here in Charlottesville.”

Jason Elliot says Escafé, the first gay bar he ever went to, became a second home for him when he moved here 10 years ago to attend UVA. Photo by Amy Jackson
Jason Elliot says Escafé, the first gay bar he ever went to, became a second home for him when he moved here 10 years ago to attend UVA. Photo by Amy Jackson

Compared to other small Virginia cities, Charlottesville has a high number of businesses that display a rainbow flag as a show of support, or where employees wear a discreet safety pin on their shirts.

“I think the great thing with Charlottesville, with society as a whole, there are a lot of places where we can gather, there are a lot of places where we are safe, where we like to go,” Elliot says. “But there’s a difference between a safe place, between a gathering place, and home. For a lot of people they have the same feeling about Escafé that I do, that this place is home.”

The Impulse Gay Social Club, located above an Asian grocery store on Route 29, is not within walking distance of homes or other establishments. And Impulse is a private club that requires membership and enforces a dress code.

Open to all, Escafé is embraced by people across generational lines.

“You’ve got your Friday night and your Saturday night crew, which is dancing,” Elliot says. “All night long we’re going to be there. …You also have a lot of the older gay community that’s going to head out for brunch or early dinner on Friday afternoon before it gets wild and loud. And with UVA, a lot of the people are really transient.”

Elliot looks beyond the gay community at all of the other groups that will be affected by the pending demolitions.

“Really what spoke loudly is that now it’s not just Escafé, it’s all the other businesses, the organizations, the other homes on the block, so to speak. The arena, the rink, The Ante Room,” he says. “…This is bigger than just one business, affecting more than just the gay community or the youth community or the night community…the Derby Dames, the metal community or even Latin night for salsa dancing, they’re all groups that are going to suffer from Escafé, The Ante Room, the arena closing. It’s a wide range of people who are missing out and losing out.”

Inside Escafé last Saturday afternoon, owner Todd Howard had the wooden top of the restaurant’s greeting stand turned upside down as he reshaped it and worked with a power drill as he talked.

“I would certainly leave [relocation] open as an option,” Howard says.  “I know that things like this deal take time. …If it should happen that the stars align and we do some hard work and maybe get some further backing we could probably relocate. Escafé would probably be different because this space has defined Escafé in its current iteration.”

Howard puts the drill down and checks a measurement on his inverted tabletop.

“It doesn’t mean that we actually stop working, stop caring, stop developing,” Howard says. “I just repaired the plumbing today. The work still goes on no matter how long we’re here, whether it is two weeks or two years. …And people should be aware that we’ll be giving notice so there can be a long goodbye.”

Long shot 

Late at night, people can often be seen dragging enormous bags of hockey equipment past the merrymakers at Escafé on their way from the closest parking lot to the ice rink. It is a long haul with heavy equipment, especially for a goalie. For both the UVA and JMU men’s hockey teams, this trek is a mandatory part of the ritual of practice.

“We’re currently undefeated in the league,” says Raffi Keuroglian, who is both a player and the president of the UVA men’s hockey club. “We’re a strong team and we’re going to be competitive. We’re actually hosting the playoffs at the Main Street Arena in February.

“I’m a fourth-year at UVA. I played hockey for most of my life,” Keuroglian says. “One of the things I was surprised by is how many people were interested in hockey at the club level. It didn’t hurt that we were just a mile away from Grounds. In the Charlottesville community we have a lot of support as well.”

Keuroglian and his teammates had been hearing rumors of the building’s sale so they were prepared for the bad news. “I wasn’t exactly blindsided by it,” he says. “It’s obviously disappointing. It definitely is a blow to the team. But it is what it is.”

The team doesn’t intend to give up on its sport.

“The closest rink is in Richmond so it would be tough to have the same kind of program but we would obviously have to schedule more games on the road,” Keuroglian says. “The interest level is still there to continue the program. I still think it’s possible that another rink could be constructed in Charlottesville.”

It isn’t only UVA’s hockey team that is at risk of losing its home in Charlottesville. The Main Street Arena also hosts youth hockey programs that don’t currently have a local alternative.

“Silversauce” Annie D., a silversmith and former bar manager at the arena and The Ante Room, has two children in her life who spend a lot of time on the ice.

“My nephew Joey Davis plays hockey in the youth league and my daughter, Liala Finer, is a figure skater taking lessons in the learn-to-skate.”

Joey lives in Culpeper and drives to Charlottesville to play and practice. Annie figures that both kids will keep trying but may find themselves at a disadvantage.

“For Joey, he’s going to keep it up and probably move more toward Northern Virginia competition,” Annie says. “He’s also 17 so the competition is getting stronger. It’s nice to have a rink to practice on in Charlottesville. In Culpeper there isn’t a rink. They travel here and they travel to Richmond. But they’re not going to drive to Lynchburg [where there is also a rink]—that’s even farther.”

Annie thinks she will probably have to take her daughter to a rink in Richmond, “and that might make it more of a hobby than a sport because it’s not going to be as convenient for her to learn how right here where it’s an everyday thing.”

“During the time that I managed the bar at the rink it was an opportunity to have a bar in a hockey rink,” Annie says. “Who has ever heard of such a thing? For being on the Downtown Mall, it’s a community area where now the parents have something to do and there’s a social life around it. We added music to it. Now you have kids skating and adults enjoying the atmosphere of music and late-night parties even, and the bar, which is just beer and wine, but when your kids are on the ice it’s nice to have a beer and a snack while watching six HD TVs.”

Natalie Raab, 14, a competitive figure skater, trains at Main Street Arena five days a week. She will be competing in the world championships in April with the Virginia Ice Theatre of Fairfax team. Photo by Ron Paris
Natalie Raab, 14, a competitive figure skater, trains at Main Street Arena five days a week. She will be competing in the world championships in April with the Virginia Ice Theatre of Fairfax team. Photo by Ron Paris

The Raab family has already glimpsed what the future without a local ice rink holds, as the rink at Main Street Arena is normally closed from April to August. Natalie Raab, 14, is a competitive figure skater who trains locally and in Richmond (her sister, Leah, 8, also skates). When the rink is not in operation, the family is up at 4:30am to make skating practice in Short Pump by 6:30 and be back in Charlottesville for school at 9am. Currently, Natalie trains five days a week in Charlottesville, and she and her sister practice one day a week in Richmond with their Virginia Ice Box Ensemble team.

Natalie hopes to reach the national level one day, and currently competes in both singles skating and theater on ice teams. In April, she’ll join the Virginia Ice Theatre of Fairfax team in the world championships, and in June she’ll compete in the national championships with the Virginia Ice Box Ensemble. Natalie’s mom, Janice, says the convenience of having a local rink helps her daughter balance the demands of school and skating, and that they will have to continue driving to SkateNation Plus in Short Pump several times a week if no other option is available.

What’s next

Four blocks from the arena, Whitney Richardson rolls up on a pair of roller skates at the Carver Recreation Center for a Charlottesville Derby Dames practice. She serves as president of the team,  and skates under the name Crashiopeia.

“I started in March 2010,” Richardson says. “I did the very stereotypical thing, which is I watched the movie Whip It, and I wondered if there was a team here, because I moved to Charlottesville six months earlier. I’m not the going-to-the-bar type and I was looking to get exercise, make friends, and I walked into derby and someone threw skates at me and said, ‘Welcome home,’ and that was it. And that’s where I’ve been ever since.”

The Derby Dames have often held roller derby bouts at the Main Street Arena, where they have attracted crowds of more than 1,000 spectators.

“Every different type of person you can find on the roller derby team,” Richardson says. “We have teachers, we have scientists, we have stay-at-home moms, we have stay-at-home dads. And we have one goal and that is to skate and to knock each other down. With love.”

The Charlottesville Derby Dames have 40 skaters on the team and about another 40 referees, non-skating officials and volunteers who have helped make roller derby happen in Charlottesville for the last decade. They have a contingency plan if the artificial floor laid over the ice in the rink disappears. In addition to a practice space in Ruckersville, they have a space in Fishersville in a building called Expoland that fits the bill.

“One time we went and they had a chicken sale in the parking lot,” Richardson says. “It’s a multipurpose space. …If anyone wants to donate space, it’s tax deductible.”

The Derby Dames are currently ranked number 48 out of 320 leagues in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. They are still actively recruiting new skaters, volunteers and kids to join their Junior Derby league, for children between 7 and 17.

Investor Mark Brown has mostly good memories of his time at the Main Street Arena. He tried curling for a while, learned to ice skate and attended UVA hockey games with his children.

“It was a project that I really enjoyed doing,” Brown says. “It was something that my kids enjoyed. It was different from anything I’ve done before.

“Probably the strongest memory that I have of the rink is the very first event we had there was a Best Of C-VILLE party, and we had the rink ready for the party about two minutes before the doors opened,” Brown says. “We were still screwing down the bar top! …If there was anything I will remember about the place it was that, just trying to get the place fixed. We converted it from an ice rink to a multipurpose building.”

Completing a $7 million real estate deal takes time. Brown doesn’t know exactly when the transaction will be finalized. But he believes that the broad coalition of communities that used the Main Street Arena will be able to convince someone to build a new rink on less expensive real estate.

“There’s already groups working on that,” Brown says. “I don’t anticipate any problems with them making that work in Charlottesville. Most rinks work in rural or industrial centers…lugging hockey stuff from one of the parking garages is not ideal. I would be shocked if there was not in the future skating in Charlottesville.”

Roger Voisinet, a local investor and real estate agent who helped start the UVA men’s hockey club, is exploring options for creating a new ice facility. Voisinet is among a group of investors in the Main Street Arena who would retain the hardware and property at the rink that could be used elsewhere. Voisinet says an announcement may come this spring.

All of the communities affected by the potential ice rink demolition have hope of surviving.

“I don’t think The Ante Room will be gone,” Annie D. says. “The Ante Room will live on. …There has to be another space. The Ante Room has built something really good. It is unfortunate to lose that space because it’s a great club. It took a long time to build it. And Jeyon Falsini has built it to be something of an extreme in town, and not just the other music that we are seeing at other [venues]. We’ve got hip-hop shows and metal shows. Nobody else is doing that and the community wants it. …Jeyon will find some way to find somewhere to put that.”

Jeyon Falsini, manager of The Ante Room, says he’d look for other spaces to house the music venue known for booking diverse genres, but says rent would be a big factor. Photo by Eze Amos
Jeyon Falsini, manager of The Ante Room, says he’d look for other spaces to house the music venue known for booking diverse genres, but says rent would be a big factor. Photo by Eze Amos

Falsini wants to try.

“I would start with looking to move it somewhere else,” he says. “It’s gotta make sense. The rent’s gotta make sense. The cost has to make sense. …I also have another business, a booking and promotion company, Magnus Management. I help book the bands at the Tom Tom Festival. If I didn’t do The Ante Room I would go back to just that business and expand on that. I do see that it is necessary, in order for a music scene to survive, for a place to exist.”

Jason Elliot sips his latte and considers the situation philosophically.

“I just think the take-home of it is we’re all in a very unstable climate right now,” Elliot says. “We don’t know what the future for a lot of things holds. Locally, statewide and nationally. There’s a lot of question marks. I think places like the arena, Escafé and this block, they helped take away some of those question marks. And even though we’re wondering what the future holds, I’ll always think of that block as being an exclamation point in my life and not a question mark.”

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