A desert of grey brick buildings and weathered parking lots is not the ideal location for a music venue to the untrained eye. But Brannon Kleinlein sees potential in the south downtown Phoenix pothole-ridden streets in the form of Last Exit Live, a new music venue set to open early next year.
The venue and bar, which specializes in rock and blues, is settling in the former Ruby Room building located near Central Avenue and Grant Street. Kleinlein, Last Exit Live owner and concert promoter, said he will bring vibrancy to an area occupied mostly by vacant buildings and auto parts shops.
The building has been empty since the Ruby Room closed its doors in 2009. Last Exit Live’s Phoenix location marks a sharp contrast from its previous home in a strip mall in Tempe.
Kleinlein, 38, opened the Tempe venue in 2003. It enjoyed a successful run, but according to Kleinlein, a combination of a downturned economy and a desire to leave the strip mall led him to sell the venue in 2009.
Adam Bruce, 30, musician for the band Mergence, played frequently at Last Exit Live. He said the Tempe home was not a proper place for a music bar.
“If you weren’t from around here, you wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s go catch some music. Let’s head on over to the strip mall on Southern (Avenue) and Priest (Drive),’” Bruce said.
The Tempe venue was sold and continued under new management with the same name. It went out of business four months later.
After the closing, Kleinlein continued his music promotion and booking work. However, he said he could enhance the music scene better by revitalizing the Last Exit Live name — this time in his own freestanding space.
“I really just felt like if I was going to continue to stay in this line of work and stay in Arizona, I needed to open my own venue again,” Kleinlein said. “I was successful at doing it the first time.”
Kleinlein searched for a building that would fit approximately 200 people, he said. He said a venue of this size would be a great addition to the growing downtown landscape.
The Ruby Room building, a one-story bar and adjacent parking lot, fit the description.
“There seems to be a lot of those (midsize) venues in Tempe right now, but there seems to be a lack of those venues in downtown Phoenix,” Kleinlein said.
Bruce said local bands like Mergence would benefit from the size of the Ruby Room building.
“I think the Ruby Room (locale) is really great because it’s kind of swanky,” Bruce said. “It’s kind of a cool size, especially for local bands, because if you get three really good bands, you should be able to sell it out and get 200 people in there.”
The venue is somewhat isolated from the center of downtown, located two blocks south of The Duce. Kleinlein said the music, not the location, will bring in the customers.
“With a live music venue, if people like the band, they will come to it. Yes, I’m three, four blocks south of most of the other businesses (downtown), but it’s close enough that people can ride a bike to or walk to from downtown,” he said.
This is a view shared by Cecil Yates, 45, director of commercial property for Tiempo Inc., the company leasing the building to Kleinlein.
“People are always starving for entertainment, so if he brings in a certain type of music or a certain band or concept, he’ll have his share of fans showing up,” Yates said.
Dona Chan, a senior finance and economy major at the ASU Tempe campus, said people would not be travelling the poorly lit streets alone.
“For venues like that, people would go in a group or with their friends, so that would decrease the issue of (being in that area),” Chan said.
Bruce applauds Kleinlein’s decision to move his business to an area where most people would not. This, Bruce said, would extend the parameters of downtown Phoenix.
“If everybody just sits there and keeps waiting for the brand-new spot and want to be in the nice parts (of town), then (the city) will never expand. And all those old buildings are really neat,” said Bruce, referring to the old Ruby Room building.
Kleinlein and Tiempo Inc., which also does general contracting, are renovating the building to make the area around the Last Exit Live venue appealing for visitors. Renovations include new lighting and construction of a parking lot on the south end of the building.
Though Kleinlein plans to redo the bathrooms, build a new stage and install a new sound system, much of the inside of the venue will remain the same.
“I did actually like a lot of the feel of the old Ruby Room,” Kleinlein said. “It had a very lounge-y feel, and I’m going to keep some of that appeal.”
Kleinlein said these improvements would draw in more people unfamiliar to the area.
“It’s going to help clean up the area quite a bit from an appearance standpoint, as well as make customers feel a little bit safer about coming down here,” Kleinlein said.
The permit for construction is currently awaiting approval by the city of Phoenix.
Last Exit Live plans to open its doors in the beginning of March 2013. Kleinlein will announce the bands that are playing early next year.
Bruce said that Kleinlein’s venture is the spark needed to reactivate the southern downtown sector, largely dominated by closed freestanding buildings and auto parts shops.
“Imagine in a couple more years, if more people like Brannon take over these neat old buildings, instead of rebuilding further out, and they just fix up what’s already there,” Bruce said. “I think it could really be something for the whole culture of Phoenix, you know?”
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