As someone deeply involved with the local music scene, Randy Gelling has seen many local arts venues come and go. The station manager at CFUV 101.9 FM, UVic’s campus radio station, Gelling knows many local acts and the people in them, and the news of the Fort Cafe’s impending closure was as much a shock to him as it was to the community.
“It wasn’t the kind of business that I would expect to get shut down, because it seemed like they were doing well,” says Gelling. He noted their Friday Quiz nights were very well attended and that it was becoming a popular destination for touring bands. Despite this, the cafe will be closing its doors in a few weeks’ time.
After six years of business, the café and performance venue will be forced to relocate on Dec. 15 as the landlord declined to renew the lease, citing safety concerns. For Gelling and other supporters of local music, the closing of the Fort is a setback as it will become more difficult for aspiring musicians in Victoria to get in front of an audience.
“Supporting amateur and young performers has always been something that we’ve been very dedicated to because there’s so many creative people and there’s not very many outlets for them to be able to actually get out and get the experience,” says Benji Duke, a co-owner of the Fort Cafe. Duke, along with his partners Jon Perkins and Melissa Byrnes, has provided an opportunity for young, local talent to play for a supportive audience. In addition to providing the space, the café also helped bands financially by passing on the rest of the cover charge directly to the performers after the establishment covered its costs. In Duke’s estimation, the Fort has contributed over $300 000 directly into the hands of amateur performers over the last six years.
According to Gelling, the Fort was in a unique position to serve as a hub for aspiring artists. “They were just the right size to put on a show. With a lot of the other venues in town, you need to be able to pull in a few hundred people to make a show viable, and that’s not always possible, especially when you’re dealing with small local bands or touring bands. But you need those small, local shows happening regularly to have the groundwork laid for local bands to grow and become major bands.”
Mike Edel, a local folk musician who has played at the Fort, agrees with that sentiment. Like many musicians, he began his career in more intimate venues, and he remembers the unique atmosphere that it offered. “What differentiates it is the culture,” says Edel. “Every place [has] a vibe, a feel. It’s clear that when someone runs a venue like that, it’s about music, art and community. Walk to the back of the café and you can just hang out with people.”
When faced with the loss of their location, Duke and the other owners considered getting out of the business, but when public support started flowing in, they began raising money to eventually reopen the restaurant and performance space in a new location. They’ve set a goal of $50 000, and after two weeks of donations, they have raised over $11 000. Donors will receive rewards for their donation, including $125 to spend at the new restaurant with a $100 donation.
“We’re looking for people to invest in us, and we will invest it directly back into you,” says Duke.
For more information, or to donate to the Fort Cafe, visit kapipal.com/supportthefort.