Boathouse Live, a restaurant and music venue that aimed to bring national and regional acts to Newport News’ City Center, closed its doors this week, about 18 months after it opened.
Owner Sean Pepe said he was not able to book enough high-profile shows and that “it just wasn’t working out.”
Pepe, who operates a half-dozen restaurants on the Peninsula, said he had “put too much of my own money into it” and that he had no choice but to shut down the venue.
Boathouse Live opened in December 2017, ambitiously taking its name from a former concert venue in Norfolk that had thrived in the 1980s and ’90s.
Located in the 16,800-square foot space that used to be home to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar, the City Center venue pulled in national acts ranging from legendary rapper Grandmaster Flash to alternative reggae singer Matisyahu.
But Pepe, who operates such restaurants as Gallina Grasso and Deadrise, said his lack of experience with live music venues made Boathouse Live a learning experience for him. The fact that it is located midway between two established venues pursuing similar acts — The National in Richmond and The Norva in Norfolk — made it difficult to compete for the shows Pepe was hoping to book. A recent show by David Allan Coe was canceled when the singer-songwriter had to undergo knee surgery.
“We had some big shows, but getting that kind of show once every six weeks or so just wasn’t enough,” he said. “Obviously we thought we would be able to book bigger and better bands, and that never materialized.”
Jason Bruner, who booked shows at Boathouse Live through More Music Group, said most of the shows scheduled for this spring and summer are being moved to other venues. Friday’s tribute show The Prince Experience has not yet been re-scheduled, but Bruner hopes to place it sometime this summer.
Concerts by Cowboy Mouth (May 30), Steve Earle (June 20) and Buckcherry (July 24) have been moved to the Vanguard in Hampton. Advance tickets for the Boathouse Live shows will be refunded; new tickets will be required for the shows at the Vanguard.
When Pepe opened Boathouse Live, the city’s Revolving Loan Fund Committee provided a $150,000 loan through the Capital Fund Loan Program, according to Daily Press archives. The terms of the loan called for every dollar to be matched by private investment.
Florence Kingston, the city’s director of economic development, said Pepe is a year ahead on his loan payments, with a current balance of $106,248.
“He has paid extra on each of his payments, so the loan has been current from day one,” Kingston said. “He is far enough ahead that technically speaking, his next payment is not actually due until next May.”
Kingston was in meetings all day Wednesday but said she would be looking over the loan documents to check for terms when the business ceased operations.
“We’re certainly disappointed, because we were very excited and happy to support what he was trying to do,” Kingston said. “I think he’s made a wonderful effort to this point, and we’ll be ready to work with him going forward on the loan.”
Mike Holtzclaw, 757-928-6479, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.
5:30 p.m.: Updated with additional comment from the city.