In June 2000, young entrepreneur Justin Strong opened a live performance venue in the heart of East Liberty, a neighborhood with a bad reputation as a result of gang violence in the 1990s. But at the age of 21, the Allderdice High School graduate saw something in the neighborhood many developers did not.
Fast forward 12 years, and his venue, the Shadow Lounge has become one of the destination spaces for performers from around the country. Similarly, East Liberty has become a destination neighborhood, for restaurant, retail and residential development.
However, the economic revitalization Strong helped jumpstart, has been a double-edged sword for the neighborhood and forced many small businesses to close or relocate. The Shadow Lounge is no exception. At the end of March 2013, as a result of outside pressure, the Shadow Lounge will temporarily close its doors.
“Our lease was up so it was a matter of whether we were going to sign up for another five years. The conspiracy or whatever you want to call it to remove us from the block kind of made it clear,” said Strong, general manager of the Shadow Lounge, LLC. “We might’ve outgrown the neighborhood or the neighborhood might’ve outgrown us, but as soon as we realized outside sources were trying to get us out, it was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
|THE SHADOW LOUNGE STAGE (Photo by J.L. Martello)
Problems for the Shadow Lounge began over the summer when Strong began receiving complaints from Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Building Inspection and the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement. While Strong has since discovered the source of the complaints, he declined to confirm or deny whether it was a competing developer.
However, while Strong admits the pressure was a partial factor in the decision to relocate, he said he and his partners began looking for a new building to purchase three years ago.
With this goal in mind, he recently launched a capital campaign. Funds raised will go toward renovations at AVA Bar and Lounge, a sister venue opened in 2007, and the eventual purchase of a new stand-alone building for the Shadow Lounge to open in 2015.
Interested parties can invest in the company with a minimum of $5000. Individuals interested in supporting the Shadow Lounge can contribute by purchasing an SL/AVA pass to gain free entry to the weekly Monday Night Jazz Night at AVA and weekly Thursday Open Mic/Stage at Shadow Lounge. Strong hopes to have $90,000 raised by the end of February.
“We’re getting individuals; we’re getting people with IRA accounts, savings bonds where they’re not getting any interest. We have people who are like I’ll have somewhere I can go and actually see my investment, not just have it sit in the bank,” Strong said. “Unfortunately banking institutions still won’t lend to you even when you’ve been in business 12 years.”
Banks wouldn’t lend to Strong and his partners 12 years ago either, when they launched the Shadow Lounge on the backs of maxed out credit cards and support from their families. Strong said he wouldn’t be able to take the same risk today.
“We had a lot of support from family and friends. At the age we were at we were actually able to do things people said we were crazy to do,” he said. “We got a jump on things and that’s why we always encourage kids, if you wanna start a business, do it now.”
In addition to spurring development in East Liberty, many credit the Shadow Lounge with helping put Pittsburgh’s music scene on the map. Before he was internationally known, hip-hop artist Wiz Khalifa shot a music video at the venue and up and comer Mac Miller did his first performance on the Shadow Lounge stage.
“It’s an ever growing organism in itself. It’s always just been about good music and good times. We actually get a nice cross section of everybody, different nationalities, and different socio economic statuses,” Strong said. “You wonder if you can duplicate it, it’s kind of just one thing where the stars lined up.”
One of the Shadow Lounge’s final events will be a legacy concert series with artists who have performed at the venue over the years. During its closure, the Shadow Lounge will continue to host live events at different venues throughout the city.
In the meantime Strong says he’s focused on dealing with the day-to-day challenges of running a business. He said he hopes the Shadow Lounge’s success will show other developers what Pittsburgh needs to attract and retain young people.
“The more you have a mixing of folks, you have a better business environment and young people who want to stay here. We don’t need these million dollar retailers or movie theatres; people just want to be around each other. It’s not department stores, those will come later,” Strong said. “That’s all we’re trying to demonstrate. We didn’t have millions.”