Music News

Chris Swank on the Plight of Running Four Businesses During COVID-19

Goosetown Tavern, one of the four businesses Chris Swank owns, in 2018.
Goosetown Tavern, one of the four businesses Chris Swank owns, in 2018. Danielle Lirette
Since the pandemic first forced bars, music venues and restaurants to close in mid-March, it's been a roller coaster ride for Chris Swank, the owner of Goosetown Tavern, Mezcal, La Rumba and Stampede as well as the Bluebird Theater, which AEG Presents leases for concerts.

Early on, Swank scrambled to get Payroll Protection Program loans, but he quickly realized that taking them was a catch-22.

"[The government] lends you money, which is fantastic," Swank says. "But then 70 percent has to go to pay people, which is great, but when you can't open, what do you do? And then you have to spend it in eight weeks. You have to interpret the rules. I would ask people what they were doing. Some restaurateurs were just paying people to stay home. Some people were not spending it at all. So we just decided at the end of the day to spend it. Let's get some work done. We just put everybody to work. Everybody put on their construction hat and started painting or renovating."

Swank completely renovated La Rumba, the dance club he opened more than two decades ago, before many of the high-rise apartments and condos went up in the area. La Rumba, with its fresh paint job and brand-new dance floor, will eventually reopen for its salsa nights and dance workshops once the city starts allowing dancing again. For now, the space will be a yoga studio during the day.

"The idea is to really kind of reposition the space, try to rebrand it a little bit but make it a funky kind of cool place to do all these different things that involve your body and movement," Swank explains.

Swank has also used the past few months to renovate the main-floor bathrooms at Stampede, the Aurora venue he took over two years ago. That's something he would have never been able to do during normal times, he notes, when shows were happening five nights a week. Since it's a 30,000-square-foot venue, Swank recently reopened Stampede with a limited capacity, only allowing 175 people at a time into the massive space.

While Stampede has a long history as a country venue, Swank has been booking larger regional Mexican acts, including groups that play Tejano, Norteño and banda.

"It became a venue like the Fillmore or the Ogden Theatre for regional Mexican bands," Swank says. "I always knew that there was a market out there, but I didn't realize how big a market it is. These bands get played on the radio, and they're winning Grammys."

Swank, who co-founded the concert promotion company Nobody in Particular Presents in 1997, says he's not only brought in popular acts from Mexico, but from El Salvador and Venezuela as well. These are bands that many other local promoters wouldn't pay any attention to unless they were part of much bigger shows, like at the Paramount Theatre or the Pepsi Center. But those shows aren't happening now, of course.

Although Swank has started up live music at Stampede, there probably won't be any bands playing at Goosetown Tavern until October. Given the small size of the room where the stage is located, Swank says he could only allow about ten to fifteen people in at a time in order to comply within the city's current COVID-19 mandate regarding capacity. Next door, Mezcal is serving its Mexican fare for dine-in and to-go.

"Within the guidelines, we have to kind of find a way to do something," Swank says. "But it's kind of hard to make money, having all these rules. It makes it almost impossible, but I feel committed to these places."

Swank is dealing with the same questions as bar, restaurant and venue owners around the country.

"How much is the business worth if every week you've got to throw in a few thousand bucks?" Swank wonders. "Is it worth keeping? Is it not worth keeping? Those are the kind of questions, sadly enough, that we're faced with every day the longer this drags on. It's unfortunate, especially since I see a lot of these good brands that have been around forever, that people like that unfortunately decide the answer is no.

"Everybody's got to kind of look at where they are at in their life and decide what is it they really want to be doing," he says. "Those are the questions we ask ourselves every day. But for right now, we're in the fight and trying to keep fighting, and we'll see what happens."
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon