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New musical habitats delayed but developing.


But things are looking up for Richmond musical habitats. Friday Cheers has turned in possibly its best roster ever, Fridays at Sunset has brought another solid lineup (LL Cool J, for one, Aug. 4), and for the first time in a while, Innsbrook After Hours has diversified beyond Southern rock and reunion acts to include — believe it or not — The Strokes (and on a Saturday night!).

But that's not all. In addition to the renovation of the Carpenter Center, which is tentatively scheduled for completion in fall 2009, and a proposed music/art venue called The Camel on the first floor of the WRIR building on Broad Street, Richmond's also in store for two new 1,500-capacity venues.

As with all construction projects, however, things are taking longer than originally planned. Down on the canal, crews are installing staircases and reinforced soundproof walls at Toad's Place, now scheduled to open in September at the earliest; the "upscale tavern" restaurant may open in late summer.

"Part of the reason it's taking so long is we want to make sure it's right," says Turning Point Development's Jeff Sadler, who was hired to run the club. (Sadler also co-writes the "Inside Track" music column for Style.)

Toad's Place takes up only part of the 1896 warehouse; there is space for two other restaurants, and there is office space on the third floor. Developer Margaret Freund, who's been working on the building for five years, says she's particularly excited about renting to a music venue because she used to play in a band. She hopes Toad's Place "puts us back on the map."

Freund has kept the character of the building. Cobblestones from the road beneath the building were used for a three-story waterfall in the entrance, and corrugated steel is used for the outdoor terrace, which will eventually be the smoking section for the smoke-free club.

Perhaps the most exciting feature of Toad's is the patio, where WRIR-FM 97.3 recently held a fund-raiser featuring bands playing on a floating stage on the canal. Sadler pictures a laid-back atmosphere with live jazz bands. He's also envisioning an area with tented cabanas and tables where groups would pay a premium to rent a reserved spot for the evening and buy alcohol by the bottle.

But those embellishments are further down the line. For now, Sadler's deadline is September, when Toad's will serve as host to half of the Richmond Symphony's Kicked Back Classics series.

Over on Broad Street, RIC Capital Ventures — a partnership between the owners of The NorVa, a concert hall in Norfolk, and the promoters of Innsbrook After Hours — has submitted a letter of intent to buy The National Theatre, which the Historic Richmond Foundation has maintained for 16 years. The plan is to turn the theater into a music venue similar to The NorVa, which has a capacity of 1,500 and no fixed seats.

Brad Wells, who produces the Innsbrook series and is the local partner of RIC, predicts that at best, the club would be ready to open at the end of 2006. Right now the partnership is looking at the build-out and costs of the project. RIC was already given an extension on its investigation period from 120 to 180 days; during this time architectural historians are advising the group on how to adapt the building. Some in the industry are skeptical the project will work financially because of the cost and restrictions in renovating the historic building. But Laurin Willis, another partner with RIC, says things are going well and they plan to close on the building in June. "We're moving forward, things look great, blah, blah, blah."

Historic Richmond Foundation Director Conover Hunt is hopeful the project will work out. "It sounds real good to us, I can tell you that much," she says. "It will bring people downtown and put the building back on the tax roll."

Hunt says that had the building remained part of the proposed Virginia Performing Arts Center, the theater would have been run by a nonprofit, which would have been exempt from paying taxes on the property.

Even though the National Theatre hasn't even been purchased, Richmond is already seeing a positive effect on its summer concert series from The NorVa's involvement. The Strokes and Sevendust shows at Innsbrook this summer were booked because of the relationships The NorVa has with those bands, says Rick Mersel, part owner of The NorVa and a partner in RIC.

And it's likely we'll see more of that kind of partnering.

"There's a hole between Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, Virginia, that we'd like to come in and fill," Mersel says, "[by using] the connections we've made with The NorVa, the Harbor Center and around the region." S

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