The founder of a non-profit arts production company said Tuesday that an emerging performance arts culture in downtown Beckley could be facing its death knell with the sudden closure of Raleigh Playhouse and Melody's, a bar and venue for local musical groups.
Jason Lockart made the assessment hours after the owners of the two businesses announced their closure, which was effective immediately. The two buildings are now for sale or available for lease.
City officials have expressed high hopes for the development of Beckley's burgeoning fine arts culture. At-Large Councilman Tim Berry has said that the arts is a cornerstone of economic and cultural development in Beckley.
Lockart, a local businessman who co-founded WV Collective with business partner Jamie Smith and local attorney Adam Taylor, said he is meeting with leaders of other local arts organizations in several days to "consider a path forward."
The trio founded WV Collective about two years ago as a not-for-profit arts organization. WV Collective has brought three productions to the stage of The Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre on Neville Street. Operation of Lockart's group is tied closely to Raleigh Playhouse.
"Melody's and Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre were the cultural center of southern West Virginia," Lockart said. "Unless there is some sort of immediate solution to continue the operation of these places, I think the arts scene in southern West Virginia could suffer a detrimental loss.
"It's so important to this town, and I don't think the town can afford to lose it," he said. "It definitely can't afford to let it set there and rot."
Lockart and Smith are partners at Kid in the Background, a multi-media production and marketing company in Beckley.
"At Kid in the Background, one-third of our income is from the Bickeys (owners of the theater), and we had no advance notice of this," said Lockart. "WV Collective is almost entirely based on using their facilities.
"I don't really know if anything I have going on will continue to exist. I don't know," he said. "We worked so hard.
"We tried so hard to build a thing."
"Everybody's emotionally reacting right now," said Lockart, who reported that he learned of the pending closures on Monday morning. "It's tough, specifically for me, because my circle of friends is essentially the staff of these places.
"So pretty much everybody I know is unemployed, right before Christmas.
"I've been spending the last two days trying to find my friends jobs."
The Bickey Companies, which own the two businesses, announced the closure Tuesday. All scheduled events were cancelled, according to a press release.
The late businessman Dan Bickey, founder of Mine Power Systems, had established the theater and "the Underground," which was still in development. Melody's was part of The Underground and gave a stage for performance artists.
After Bickey's death in July 2014, the Bickey family kept the theater open in an effort to build an arts scene. The family had also donated use of a downtown building for use as a School of Harmony campus in August 2018.
On Tuesday, Matthew Bickey said the family had viewed the Playhouse and Melody's as part of Dan's legacy but that neither has reached "independent profitability," forcing the family to place the facilities for sale.
"We kept them open to honor Dad's hopeful vision," Matthew Bickey said in a press release. "But we have come to a place now, where we can't afford to keep subsidizing them.
"It breaks my heart to close them."
Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold responded to the news on a hopeful note Tuesday.
"If anybody has demonstrated a desire to make things work and to fulfill his father's dream downtown, it's Matt and George Bickey," said Rappold, adding that he does not "believe it's the end of the road for either entity."
"I think there might be some work behind the scenes that might indicate that both entities would continue at some point," said the mayor. "And yeah, it's diametrically opposed to what we're trying to do for downtown Beckley in terms of attracting the arts, but on the other hand, the rationale that Matt Bickey expressed in his press release is certainly understandable and you could only subsidize operations that aren't quite at the profit level for so long, this day and time."
Councilman Tom Sopher said, "Businesses are fragile."
Sopher, who owns Best Fabric on S. Fayette Street, said, "People just don't know how hard and how much work goes in one to keep them afloat.
"I am sad for the employees that put their heart and soul in doing a fantastic job for our community and the Bickey family.
"The Bickeys need commended for supporting it for so long."
Joe Brouse, executive director of New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, said leaders will continue forging ahead with the development of downtown Beckley.
"We're just going to have to work harder at marketing the downtown, kind of marketing the walkability," he said. "That's one of its strengths but we also need to work on promoting these cultural venues, too.
"That's got to be part of our strategy."
Brouse said the closures will not deter the development of the downtown as a college town for West Virginia University-Institute of Technology.
"As the student population grows, there's going to be more and more demand for this kind of recreation and the arts," he said. "We need to keep these folks there.
"I had talked to Dan Bickey shortly before his passing, and he was so proud of what he was able to do there for downtown Beckley, and so that makes it doubly rough."
For Thanksgiving 2013, Dan Bickey had kept open a family business, McBee's Irish Pub and Restaurant, to serve a turkey buffet to those who were unable to afford a holiday dinner. McBee's closed in 2015.