Halifax’s venerable Carleton Hotel may not look all that special from the outside. But inside, the Carleton Music Bar and Grill has a special place in the city’s arts and culture landscape.
That’s in jeopardy now, as owner Mike Campbell has filed for bankruptcy protection, citing high taxes and neighbouring construction as major reasons.
He calls it a “perfect storm of weirdness.”
Friday, he told the Chronicle Herald that the Nova Centre and Macdonald bridge construction were partly to blame for the bar’s financial woes.
He says he lost about $100,000 annually over the past three years.
On advice from his lawyer, Campbell filed for bankruptcy protection in early September.
If he had to pinpoint when the trouble began, he would say about three years ago — the same time all the cranes showed up downtown.
The closure of the Macdonald bridge has also made it more expensive for people to travel to and from the city’s core on a tight budget.
The Carleton was fighting the good fight, but over time, Campbell says they just fell further behind.
“In our case, I think the biggest issue was HST, which usually comes back to bite businesses like ours,” he said.
Campbell says the city hasn’t been a big help, especially when it comes to the Nova Centre.
The Carleton is one of seven downtown businesses involved in a legal battle for compensation for money they say they’ve lost because of the convention centre’s ongoing construction.
“I don’t think anyone has taken our group of businesses down there seriously enough,” Campbell said.
And while some have suggested the city should offer the venue a tax break, that isn’t allowed.
On Friday, a city spokesman said that according to their charter they can’t provide grants to private businesses, only non-profit arts organizations.
Campbell is past the point of hoping to keep the venue, which seats 120, open as is.
While they once needed 35-40 staff, now they have a team of 15.
“I’m hoping to find someone who we like, who would be willing to take over the space,” he said, adding that until then the bar will continue to operate.
“Whoever does take it over, I can’t imagine they would be interested in doing live music, because I’m one of the few people crazy enough to continue to bash my head against the wall.”
It’s hard for anyone to deny that the bar has become part of the city’s arts and culture fabric.
It has won the Music Nova Scotia award for venue of the year six times and is a three-time winner of the East Coast Music Award for best venue in Atlantic Canada.
When news of The Carleton’s bankruptcy filings first broke, Campbell says he received calls and support from local and international artists.
Juno-nominated singer and songwriter Peter Katz was sad to hear the news.
Katz has played the Carleton about three times, most recently last October.
He says Campbell is someone who loves music and believes in artists — a breed that’s hard to come by these days.
“They are the people on the ground, building up artists from their early gigs,” Katz said on Thursday.
The last time Katz was in town, Campbell warned him that times were changing and that the number of shows he had lined up was declining.
Katz, who resides in Toronto and travels across Canada and internationally for gigs, sees this narrative repeated across the country.
But he says new performers need mid-level venues like the Carleton to cut their teeth on and develop who they are as artists.
In the daylight, he says the Carleton just looks like any old bar or restaurant.
It’s one of those venues where you don’t know what you’re going to get.
But as soon as the people file in and the lights dim, Katz says, it all makes perfect sense.
“It’s a place where people come to listen, and you understand why it’s such an appreciated place,” he said.
Original publish date: Sept. 25, 2016