By Rob Kalesse
Special to Delaware Business Times
On April 1, World Café Live at the Queen Theater will celebrate five years since first opening its doors for business in 2011. An anniversary blowout will include a Free at Noon concert featuring Grammy Award-winner Ben Harper, followed by a full day of events that concludes with performances from local acts Spokey Speaky and Universal Funk Order.
For Hal Real, founder and president of World Café Live, the past half-decade has been filled with ups and downs, and challenges and successes. The end result, however, is a far cry from where the building — and Market Street itself — was in 2007, when he and his staff first walked through the dilapidated doors at 500 N. Market St.
“Since it had closed in 1959, all the way up to 2011, this building was really a symbol of the urban decay and blight that had fallen on Wilmington’s landscape,” said Real. “The city has changed, Market has changed, and so have we, all for the better, I believe, despite a recession that really threatened all of it in 2009.”
Equally important to the success of the World Café Live franchise, which Real first opened in Philadelphia in 2004, has been the addition of new businesses on Market Street. Real says the Queen’s renovation — from its state-of-the-art sound and lighting to funky aesthetic and charming interior — has been a big part of convincing more people to come downtown.
“Sure, we were cautiously optimistic when we were first approached about opening in Wilmington,” said Real. “But our goal was to make this a place where people could hold not just concerts and performances, but also weddings, corporate functions, you name it. If people came here and saw what we were capable of, we knew they’d come back.”
Front-of-house manager Pam Owens has been on the job since day one, although at first in a part-time capacity. She remembers the old days of Market Street, when getting a hot dog and an orange soda at the old Woolworth’s was a highlight of her childhood. Since the Queen has opened its doors, however, she’s gotten a front-row seat for the nearby renaissance.
“This started out as a second job for me, and I’ll admit I was skeptical as to how things would go when I first got here,” said Owens. “Then I met Hal and the rest of the staff, and got this feeling that everyone was really committed to doing great things here. In the past five years, I’ve seen the Sneaker Villa, LOMA Coffee, Bain’s Deli and now the Merchant Bar open all around us. It’s been great to watch.”
Will Minster, director of business development for Downtown Visions, a local nonprofit focusing on small business recruitment, marketing and promotion in Wilmington, shares Owens’s sentiment. Minster gives credit to Real and the World Café Live crew for sticking with their plan, and helping reinforce the once-depleted “spine” of Market Street.
“That area of Market — especially around Fifth and Sixth streets —had always been a dead zone. There was no real connection between the businesses at the north end of Market and lower Market,” said Minster. “Now, even on days when the Queen is dark, it creates a visual aspect that connects things and lets people know that cool stuff is happening down here.”
Minster says not only has World Café Live helped to bring world-class musicians and artists to Wilmington, but local musicians as well. Part of the relationship between World Café Live and the Queen Theater lies in the commitment to become a “community clubhouse,” promoting civic engagement, while partnering with the Light Up The Queen Foundation to offer programs to thousands of Wilmington students.
Gable Music Ventures, a local concert and events promoter, is a direct benefactor of World Café Live’s commitment to the city. Co-founder Jeremy Hebbel, along with partner Gayle Dillman, will also celebrate their fifth anniversary in business together with the Queen. Hebbel, in looking back at the past five years, had difficulty putting into words just how much World Café Live has meant to his business, as well as the local music scene.
“In terms of our business, they’ve taken us in and offered us a home and allowed us to give the Upstairs Live show to local bands that are just getting started,” said Hebbel. “Through our Wilmo Wednesdays program each week, we have a platform that allows a lot of local musicians the chance to play their first gig on a real stage. The importance of the Queen to the local music scene is huge.”
Minster says that “off-peak” programming, like Wilmo Wednesday and the family-friendly Peanut Butter & Jams on Saturday mornings, is helping to drive business to Market Street during hours other than Friday and Saturday nights. Those programs are part of the reason nearby restaurants like La Fia Bakery + Market + Bistro and its newly opened sister restaurant, Merchant Bar, can rely on customers throughout the week.
“I have to give them credit; what they’re doing has really brought a lot of momentum in terms of bringing in other business to the downtown area,” said Minster. “Just this morning, I received two calls regarding new businesses who want to develop in that area of the neighborhood. It’s no mystery that World Café Live and the Queen are the draw.”
After 1,800 performances, more than 200,000 tickets sold, and over 500,000 guests welcomed through the doors of the Queen Theater, Real can look to the future of Market Street and World Café Live with confidence. The challenge to get people downtown still exists, but the businesses on Market feel like they are finally winning the battle.
“I think we all expected Wilmington to be where we are now even before the recession hit, but we’re finally like, OK, the seeds are planted, and we’re watering and nurturing the landscape with restaurants, bars and boutiques,” Real said. “The time is now: we’re in the throes of a renaissance on Market Street, and it’s a great feeling.”
The Ben Harper Free at Noon show requires an RSVP. All other events on April 1 are free to the public. David Falcone starts things off at Upstairs Live during the lunch hour with a performance at 1 p.m., followed by a string of Shine A Light musicians playing the rest of the day in support of the Light Up the Queen Foundation. Donations to the non-profit, which is dedicated to the revival of the Queen Theater through community-building events and programming, will be accepted at the door.