The Vermont Cynic

Higher Ground to Close

April 25th is slated to be the final day of operation for the Winooski nightclub. Higher Ground’s closing is a significant loss to the Burlington area as it has attracted some of the biggest names in the music industry to Vermont during its six year run. Because of Burlington’s location–conveniently situated between Montreal and Boston–many musicians choose to stop en route for what many consider an enthusiastic crowd and comfortable atmosphere. The nightclub/restaurant is closing because of Winooski city redevelopment plans slated for 2004-2005. These redevelopment plans include construction of a parking garage, a new headquarters for the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., and students housing facilities. Rumors surrounding the closing of the Winooski based nightclub have been circulating for the past few years, although nothing definite has ever been reported regarding the closing until a February 24th Burlington Free Press article announcing Higher Ground’s closing. The closing was initially dated for April 15, however it has since been postponed to April 25th, where its last musical act, Orchestra Baobab, will be performing.Inside and Beyond Getting into Higher Ground is somewhat ritualistic. You may or may not stand in line, but the bouncers always stop you and ask for id. You are then directed through the main doors or to the will call booth. The interior of Higher Ground resembles more of a theatre than a nightclub, with much attention paid to lighting and audience position. In many ways its theatrical performances were more successful than its musical performances, most notably with the Stella Comedy Group. Although part owner Matt Sutte reflected on the nightclub’s aesthetic appeal and difficulty in capturing that same aesthetic, he was surprisingly enthusiastic about the redevelopment plans put forth by Winooski.”I think the project is cool. I just wish [the Winooski Development Corp.] would have let us know sooner. They kind of left us hanging for about three years, although I see it as an opportunity for us to expand and do some things we maybe wouldn’t have before,” said Sutt.eBackgroundHigher Ground opened in April of 1998 and has since hosted some of the biggest names in music Vermont has seen. The list of performers ranges from Willie Nelson to Hieroglyphics to, most recently, Phish. The nightclub’s six-year run saw more than just music, with police patrols a common sight during performance nights and violence characteristic of its less memorable nights. Higher Ground has been able to exist in the position it has enjoyed largely because of a lack of competition within the Burlington area. Aside from a few other music venues, Higher Ground has had what amounts to a virtual monopoly on musical acts. Higher Ground is larger than many other venues in the area and has been attractive because of the relatively large space now occupied by the nightclub. This combined with the acts that Higher Ground has been able to recruit has meant sold out shows for a majority of shows during 2003-2004. Redevelopment and RelocationThe city of Winooski is in the process of expanding and redeveloping its downtown. Higher Ground is positioned in the middle of this redevelopment project. Although Higher Ground is closing its current location due to Winooski city redevlopment, it is not doing so without compensation. A February 24th Burlington Free Press article quoted Winooski City Manager Gerry Myers as offering the nightclub $391,000 for relocation costs. The WCDC, the Winooski Community Development Corp., who owns the building Higher Ground operates out of, was compensated to the tune of $1.9 million. Other businesses within the area were also compensated by the city of Winooski. No other compensation was given to either Higher Ground or the WCDC.The April 25th closing date for Higher Ground is by no means the last date of shows presented by Higher Ground. Previous years have seen Higher Ground hosting many shows at the Shelburne museum during the summer months. Last summer Willie Nelson performed with Tracy Chapman and others at the Shelburne museum. Relocation has been the topic of many Higher Ground related discussions, although Higher Ground part owner Alex Crothers refused to comment on any specifics regarding relocation, citing only an intention to return in Fall 2004. Information regarding the specifics of relocating Higher Ground has remained undisclosed, although The Cynic learned the owners of Higher Ground are considering locations in Burlington, South Burlington, and Essex. All three areas have comparable spaces that would no doubt draw as many from the surrounding areas as Higher Ground currently does.UVM sans Higher GroundThe closure of Higher Ground has implications beyond the economic and physical. Higher Ground has stood as a beacon of entertainment for UVM students since its inception. The closure of the nightclub has many UVM students disheartened. “I think it’s terrible. They bring all the music to Burlington and now that they are gone, there’s going to be a big void. It was also the only place where you didn’t have to be 21 to get in. They always had a descent variety and enough bands playing to make it worthwhile,” said Joshua Sklarin of the closing. “I suppose the redevelopment is good for Winooski, but the closing of Higher Ground is bad for music here. I don’t think there will be many bands coming through here now.”As the prospects for live music entertainment grow slimmer and slimmer, there are some who remain hopeful among them UVM student and Higher Ground enthusiast Dan Horstkotte.”It sucks it’s not going to be open. It’s really not smart of Winooski, but maybe there will be some venues that begin to take some of the acts that will be coming through Burlington. If SA Concerts tries I think they could attract some good shows, but otherwise I’m looking forward to the time when Higher Ground reopens. They had a good thing because they were able to get good shows of all kinds, but now that they are gone Metronome might start getting better shows and be able to compete.”

Higher Ground to Close?

Rumors have been spreading around campus that Higher Ground will be closing down. As the most popular venue in the Burlington/Winooski area, the closure of Higher Ground would dramatically change the music scene in Burlington.

Higher Ground, which opened in April of 1998, books a wide variety of shows with the such talented musicians as KRS-One, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Toots and the Maytals. The 18+ policy of the club makes it accessible to all college students in the area, and its ideal size and well equipped bar has made it a favorite among UVM students.

Unfortunately, the fate of the club is unclear because of plans for massive development of downtown Winooski.

For the past two years, the Winooski City Development Committee has been working on a complete re-structuring of Winooski that would include a waterfront park in front of the Winooski River, the construction of office buildings and condominiums, and the creation of a downtown similar to that of Burlington. This ambitious plan for development does not include Higher Ground, and the building it occupies now would be completely demolished.

Co-owner Alex Crothers thinks that because of the struggling economy, it will be difficult to go ahead with the plans, “Without any money, nothing gets done.” Although the future of the club is up in the air, Crothers is optimistic that Higher Ground will stay at its present location for a while. “We’ve had our busiest fall to date this year and we are going to start booking for the beginning of next year.”

Over the past two years, management at Higher Ground has been talking continuously with the Winooski City Development Committee and a number of deadlines have been set for Higher Ground to move out of the space, but these deadlines have been pushed back several times. Although the next deadline is set for January 15, the staff of Higher Ground wonder if that deadline will be postponed again due to a lack of organization and funding for the city’s development plans.

The threat of possible eviction does exist and the staff at Higher Ground have been looking around for a new space but have not offered any specifics on a possible new location. They are disappointed at the prospect of having to move when the lease for their current space extends for another six years. “We are happy in Winooski and we want to stay. We have a good relationship with the city, the police, and we like the space,” said Crothers.

Students have expressed concern over the possible closure of Higher Ground and what it would mean for Burlington’s music scene. “Regardless of what happens, it’s important that Higher Ground stays in the Burlington area. It just brings such great music into town,” said senior Ryan Lowe.

Although the future of Higher Ground remains uncertain, it is likely that a complete shutdown of the venue will not occur for at least a few months, possibly longer. The owners are preparing for this by looking for a new home for Higher Ground.

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Higher Ground to Close