H*MAC partner Michael Giblin sees it when, in his life as a bass player, he tours nationwide with musicians from such revered bands as R.E.M. and Wilco. Lisa White, the Washington, D.C.-based booker brought on to fill the Lazarus-like space, also saw it when she drove down 2nd Street late one night and stopped for young drunks lurching in front of her car.
That niche is the responsible, grown-up crowd, hungry for a night out that doesn’t end in a drunken blur. White knew that mature types would want “to hang out in Midtown where there are more adult things to do, and more art-related things to do, whether it be visual art or musical art or film.”
“Every city has their area where the younger people go to just be drunk, and they have other places where people can go who don’t want to be part of that, and that’s what Midtown Harrisburg is going to be,” she says.
H*MAC, rescued five times from the sheriff’s sale list, has been restored to life. A financing deal in October 2014 finally provided the infusion to capitalize on the whole, historic building and not just the funky, existing Stage on Herr.
Giblin says he became “organically involved” with the project, moving from frequent customer to hands-on partner with John Traynor, Gary Bartlett and Chuck London. Traynor is the British import who wandered off I-81 to check out Harrisburg and fell in love with the possibilities at the former Police Athletic League building at 1110 N. 3rd Street.
But the dream collided with the recession, and H*MAC’s tribulations were front-page news. Today, the partners are about $4 million into the total $5 million project, and the end is in sight, says Giblin. Here’s what to expect in the new, ADA-compliant H*MAC:
- Stage on Herr, rebranded as Herr Street Stage, continues hosting fun and up-and-coming acts. Even in the darkest days, the success of this space helped pay the bills.
- The spectacular upstairs ballroom becomes the Capital Room. With capacity up to 1,100, it’s a configurable venue worthy of hosting name music acts, weddings, galas, fundraisers and dances.
- The Kitchen at H*MAC opened May 15, serving fast-casual, but not like Chipotle. These are “gourmet-ish,” PA Preferred, Southern-inspired, chef-prepared dishes, Giblin says. The H*MAC partners signed on the Delaware restaurant consultant behind Troegs Brewing Co.’s breakout tasting room and snack bar to create the concept.
What else? Maybe a dance club in the basement. Maybe a bar on the rooftop. That’s in the next phase, so we’ll have to wait and see. The idea isn’t just about expanding the space but “bringing a whole new concept to the landscape,” says Giblin.
“We’re going to be a one-stop shopping event for your evening out,” he says. “You can come and eat, either before or between the show, you can go to the show upstairs, and then you can hang out in the night club afterwards.”
There’s that grown-up thing. H*MAC belongs to the Destination Midtown coalition striving for the eclectic go-to neighborhood that Harrisburg pines for. He remembers the days of the “I saw your mama on 3rd Street” taunts. Now, he sees a turnaround because a few smart folks bought low during the recession and are dreaming high.
“All of those wonderfully hidden architectural gems were sitting there, waiting to blossom,” he says.
Giblin envisions a “middle class of acts” coming to H*MAC from the “rich catalog that appeals to the over-30 crowd or the cottage industry of artists that makes a living playing live.”
That’s where Lisa White comes in. She has been booking spaces and consulting since the 1980s. She signed on with H*MAC because she saw the “little renaissance” of artistic variety in Midtown and recognized the need for touring acts and events in a wide-open space.
White says she won’t sign any artists to the Capital Room until renovations are wrapping and an opening date is clearly in sight.
“The last thing we want to do is move a confirmed show that someone has routed a tour around,” she says.
But she’s been planting the seed among managers. At this year’s South by Southwest music festival, her descriptions of this new venue in a city just off a major highway got their attention. She and other buyers are conversing about an I-81 music corridor, where acts can find eager audiences city by city.
“They can’t go up and down the I-95 corridor all the time,” she says. “You can only play those markets a certain amount of times before you start having diminishing returns. Bands are on the road more because they’re not getting any revenue from the recorded product, so they need to find places where they can perform and do well.”
Enter Harrisburg. There will be an experimentation period in booking the Capital Room, finding what delights Harrisburg, whether it’s Scandinavian black metal or swing dance lessons on the ballroom’s wooden floor.
“That’s part of the adventure of it,” White says. “You don’t know these things, and you can’t know these things, and you just gotta try it and see what works.”
The Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (H*MAC) is located at 1110 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For the latest updates and scheduled acts, visit www.harrisburgarts.com or the Facebook page: Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center.
The Kitchen at H*MAC is open Monday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 4 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.