5 January 2018

Phoenix launches crowdfunding campaign to save iconic music venue

| Ian Bushnell
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phoenix crowd

Photo: Supplied.

The Phoenix Pub in the city has launched a last-minute crowdfunding campaign to keep its doors open and trade its way out of trouble after going public about its woes in the wake of a fire and subsequent rain damage that led to a running battle with agent LJ Hooker.

The iconic music venue in East Row may have only a week to raise its target of $75,000 to pay some of its debts and give it the breathing space it needs to stabilise the business, with any further amounts giving it the opportunity to relaunch and expand.

The campaign at gofundme.com launched on Thursday night, was well on it way on Friday afternoon with nearly $9,200 raised by 111 people and attracting more than 600 shares on Facebook.

Addressed to the Friends of The Phoenix, a statement on the site said: “We’re broke, we’re broken but we’re battling and we’re not giving in.”

It said the great expenses and continually shifting goal posts of operating the business due to the Sydney Building fire in 2014 had led the Phoenix to a point where without the public’s help its lease will be terminated and the bar closed.

“We owe $75,000 in debt to our suppliers, current landlord and lawyers. An additional $75,000+ would help us revitalise the current venue, with a view to daytime trade and increasing of capacity to keep the property a long-term viable live music venue and pub,” the statement said.

“We are asking our beautiful community past, present, and future (think of the children of you lot) to come together and give us the crutch we need to stand up again and show these bureaucrats that The Phoenix is more than just another tenant. We are a proud community at the heart of the Canberra creative community and we will keep that heart beating.”

Phoenix publican and spokesperson Netti Vonthethoff said it was a last resort to go public and appeal to the community that had supported the venue for 25 years.

“We have to make a decision really quickly as to whether we exist anymore or not. Hopefully, there are enough people out there to help us get back on our feet,” she said.

Since the fire, which damaged the premises and roof above the original pub next door to the present operating space into which the Phoenix had expanded, the business had lost up to $5 million in trade, fought an exhausting legal battle and incurred a demand for back rent from LJ Hooker of $200,000, despite not being able to operate the premises for much of the time.

She said the fire did little damage to the original space but insurance issues delayed its reopening and then in January 2015 heavy rain poured through the still unrepaired roof due to tarpaulins not being secured properly.

The landlord subsequently gutted the place but apparently did not restore it to working order, with the original pub losing crucial facilities such as its keg room, bar, plumbing and electrics.

Ms Vonthethoff said the business then spent $250,000 on bringing the space up to speed so it could be reopened in March 2017. That proved a false dawn however after LJ Hooker raised compliance issues, followed by eviction in July for being in violation of the lease for breaking down a wall to connect the Phoenix’s two spaces.

“Nobody could have predicted this from the beginning, the way this has played out has just been really bizarre,” she said.

Now the focus is on retaining the present space, the old Murphy’s Shooters, and rebuilding from there.

“We want to survive as the Phoenix, bring back what the Phoenix was with what we have, and expand from that point,” she said. “So right now, first thing is let’s stay where we are, let’s survive and then create because we have an amazing community of support out there.”

She said it would be a sad thing to lose a venue that had been around for this long and had contributed so much to Canberra’s cultural history.

“The Phoenix has been there for 25 years. Canberra doesn’t have that big a cultural history, to kill something like that, it’s just very sad day for live music,” she said.

“A lot of bands have come though, we’ve had so many amazing bands. The opportunities for those musicians to have somewhere to play, to have that exposure for their music. There are so many people who would have some kind of connection or memory to the Phoenix.”

BMA Magazine’s Allan Sko urged the community get behind the campaign, saying the Phoenix was a Canberra institution that would be an enormous loss if it were to close.

“It’s been responsible for countless hours of entertainment and it would be devastating to lose it. It needs to stay around because it’s given Canberrans so many years and been a house for people, it’s now time for Canberrans to stand up and support it back,” he said.

Mr Sko said the Phoenix had nurtured local talent and given touring musicians a stage.

“It’s been an import venue for bands taking their first trembling steps in their careers. If we were to lose the Phoenix it would be such an enormous loss for the local scene and also for interstate and international artists because there would be one less terrific venue for people to perform at.”

Canberra musician Adam Bell from the King Hits said the Phoenix had been a safe, friendly venue for 25 years and a consistent supporter of live music and original music in Canberra.

“And not just music, it’s played host to a whole lot of things for Canberra’s diverse communities,” he said.

“As a rock’n’roller, it supported our band. I can almost say we pulled the band together so we could get a gig at the Phoenix. It’s been highly regarded in the music community and given people a shot.”

Mr Bell said it was hard to imagine Canberra without the Phoenix. “It has been the heart and soul of a community, you could almost say its been owned by its community. It’s a business but it also belongs to us,” he said.

Ms Vonthethoff said staff were behind the campaign, volunteeering their time and mobilising social media such as Facebook.

“If we raise $50,000 in the next week we’ll look at that and make a decision. It may not all come from crowdfunding,” she said, not ruling out the possibility of a white knight coming to the aid of the business.

“It’s possible. There’s a white knight I’m sure, or many thousands of white knights out there,” she said.

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