By Scott Faingold
“It’s one thing to fix up an old building or two,” declares George Sinclair of Southtown. “Our mission has been more about bringing back the whole neighborhood.”
Sinclair first came to Southtown in 1988 when he opened indoor skateboard park Skank Skates at 1101 South Grand Avenue East. A quarter century later, Skank Skates is not only still standing but is providing the unlikely cornerstone of what amounts to a complex of new, vibrant, youth-oriented businesses in the once blighted neighborhood.
Back in 2005, Kevin Bradford and three partners opened all-ages music venue Black Sheep Café next door to the skateboard haven, with a focus on independent and punk music, traditional favorite genres among skateboarders. His partners bailed out soon after, but Bradford has kept the doors open, persevering through eight years of waxing and waning music bookings and audience interest.
Things were at a low point for the Black Sheep Café in 2011 when Brian Galecki moved back to his hometown of Springfield after graduating from the University of Illinois in Champaign. Galecki, now 24, had come of age as a regular patron of the all-ages music venue, which opened when he was 16 years old, and upon his return he involved himself in every aspect of Black Sheep’s operations. In effect, Galecki’s return helped usher in a new era for the business, and in the past two years, the Black Sheep has not only seen a surge in both concert attendance and local music bookings but has also become a destination spot for national touring bands, playing host to performers from all over the country as well as from Europe and South America.
In January, the fresh-faced entrepreneurs of Southtown expanded their reach even further with the opening of a brand new music retail space – Dumb Records, owned by Galecki, Bradford and Springfield resident Cory VanMeter in partnership with Nathan Landolt of Champaign’s Error Records – along with South Town Studio, a recording studio-cum- practice space, run by musician and engineer Brandon Carnes, 24, who reports having recorded eight projects in his first three weeks, with bookings already stretching into March.
The grand opening of Dumb Records on Saturday, Jan. 11, was a joyful affair, with acoustic musicians performing in the store’s small, well-stocked space at 1107 South Grand as well as an exhibition of visual art in full swing next door at Black Sheep.
Most of those in attendance seemed very young and there was a pervasive, cohesive sense of community. Like the adjacent skate shop and music venue, the new record store and recording studio both have a warm, homemade ambience, a kind of ramshackle charm, with hand-painted signage and an overall lived-in feel. According to Brandon Carnes, the lack of slickness is as much a statement of purpose as a matter of necessity.
“It’s not about what we’ve got, it’s about what we do with it and who we can affect with it,” he explains passionately. “At Black Sheep, maybe the P.A. is not in great shape, but when a band comes, it’s not about the sound system, it’s about what they’re saying, what they’re doing, the fact that they’re here. It’s the same with my studio. I don’t have crazy, state-of-the-art equipment but I do know how to make a record here that sounds like rock and roll.”
In addition to Skank Skate, George Sinclair owns the properties where Black Sheep, Dumb Records and the recording studio all reside and couldn’t be happier with these recent developments. “We’ve gone from getting good tenants to getting active tenants who are picking up where I’m leaving off as far as helping run the businesses and bring back the economy,” he says.
“It is grass roots urban renewal done by the people of the city,” says Bradford, 31. “It’s people who care about arts and music who are making it happen, it’s not an outside investor opening a Jimmy John’s on the corner, it’s us doing it ourselves.” Indeed, as the neighborhood continues to blossom, other locally owned Southtown businesses such as Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue are likely to feel the benefit.
Sinclair has also recently begun working with local company genH to literally cultivate the neighborhood. “We plowed up a vacant lot on 12th and South Grand, and we’re going to have an urban garden over there in the years to come.” Directly behind the Black Sheep’s parking lot, Sinclair proudly shows off the teaching garden where he conducts beekeeping classes. “It’s about teaching people the basics of how to grow your own food and why you might want to do that,” he says.
“We didn’t go to business school and come in here with a five-year plan,” says Bradford (“We didn’t even have a five-week plan,” Carnes interjects with a laugh). ”We just did it. If you stick with stuff and don’t give up, things can happen, as long people support what you’re doing.”