After 3 Kings Tavern revealed that it was closing for good during the COVID-19 shutdown, rumors started flying that the Skylark Lounge, just a few blocks down Broadway, was also shutting permanently because of the economic slump caused by the pandemic.
Skylark owner Scott Heron says that’s plain wrong — though the property is for sale. But he already planned to list the building and business for $2.5 million before the stay-at-home order went into effect. And he wasn’t selling because his bar was going belly-up; revenue was growing, in part because of trendy new residential developments in the area.
“We’re in a good place financially,” he says of the Skylark. “We’re not closing. We’re not going away. It’s time for me to do the next thing. I’d like to do some sailing. I’d like to travel. I’d like to do something with solar energy.”
In short: He’s ready to move on...but not quite yet.
If you look at the marquee outside the Skylark, which in better times is a hub of musicians, artists and punks, it promises that the venue will reopen. Bartenders are spreading that message online, too. “The Skylark is not closing!" writes longtime employee and Denver fixture Ronnie Crawford on Facebook. "We are ready to open with live music and dancing as always, crazy rumor, untrue. Share this.”
And Heron definitely plans to boot the Skylark back up again — once rules allow it to reopen and Heron feels it's safe to do so...and if he hasn’t sold.
“It might take three years to sell,” he says.
He’s in no rush to reopen, though; he's worried that the state is pushing to bring back bars too quickly for the public good.
“I’m a science kind of person,” he says. “These politicians are jumping the gun to reopen everything without the science or data behind them. We don’t have good data. I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon with everyone else. If you see places opening up and the Skylark isn’t one of them, it’s not because of financials. I could go on for years like this.”
Heron does acknowledge that running an independent venue in Denver came with some challenges before the pandemic hit.
One of those is the Gallagher Amendment, a 1982 law designed to protect residential property owners from paying a disproportionate amount of sales tax. The law made residential owners take on 45 percent of the property tax burden and business owners pay 55 percent. As massive commercial properties like the Gates Rubber Factory site are redeveloped as residential, Heron argues, the law puts an unfair tax burden on small businesses like his.
His other frustration is that the music industry itself is more competitive than ever and independent venues are being pushed out of the market by corporate behemoths.
“Live music is just getting ridiculously difficult anymore between technology and this duopoly bullshit of AEG and Live Nation,” he says.
With two dominant promoters with multiple venues to book in Denver, he says agents find it easier to make a phone call to one talent buyer rather than trying to book artists at multiple venues through multiple talent buyers. As an independent, “you end up getting less and less calls from booking agents,” he says.
The other problems that Heron sees are that Live Nation and AEG have artists sign radius clauses, which prevent bands from playing other venues on tour and that the corporate promoters also have budgets for advertising, which independent clubs can't afford, making them less competitive.
“It’s just a gradual sucking the air of the room, is what it is,” Heron says, also noting, "They’re not particularly evil” — it’s just basic economics.
And while he’s ready to get out of the live-music game, “I don’t want to steer anyone against getting into it," he says. "But if you’re just in it for pure money, there’s going to be other things you can do that are easier.”
Heron bought the Skylark in 1998 for around $82,000 after a life of slinging pizzas, aspiring to be a pilot, installing security systems on military bases and renting sailboats in a marina.
”You name it, I’ve done it,” he says.
At the time, the Skylark was a run-down dive at 58 North Broadway, named after a sentimental Hoagy Carmichael song, that had been running since 1943.
“The neighborhood was slowly turning around back then," Heron recall. "The Baker neighborhood was 60 percent gay back then. I bought it from a gay guy who had an impression of what he wanted, but he really had no idea what he was getting himself into. It was failing when I bought it. Sales were down to a quarter of what it was before.”
Heron turned it into an Americana, honky-tonk, rockabilly joint, giving the space a nostalgic air and creating what has become a Denver music destination.
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In 2003, his landlord didn't renew the lease, so he purchased Skylark's current location at 140 South Broadway. At that time, the downstairs of the new building was divided into multiple storefronts. He tore down the load-bearing walls that dividing the spaces and replaced them with beams. The upstairs, where the stage currently is, was an old office space divided by cubicles that he removed.
Over the years, he has collected nostalgic photographs, installed pool tables and given the space its gritty, classic aesthetic. It's a type of venue that's endangered by the gentrification of South Broadway.
Heron's real-estate broker has already been touring people through the space. While he imagines the new owner will more likely be an investor pulling money out of the stock market to speculate on trendy real estate than a music promoter, Heron hopes whoever it is respects the character of the bar that he’s so carefully crafted.
“It would be nice if someone already in the business would buy it and liked it the way it is,” he says. “It would be a shame for someone to go in there, spend a fortune to make it into something else. It’s a solid, successful business that runs well when things are in a normal environment. To rip that out and turn it into something that would be more trendy would be more of a risk."