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Does this group point a way forward for many of our ailing LGBTI venues?

Does this group point a way forward for many of our ailing LGBTI venues?

The co-operative that has formed to save The Stud in San Francisco

A co-operative of drag queens, bartenders, nightlife experts and other business people have come together to secure the future of one of San Francisco’s best-known and loved LGBTI venues: The Stud.

The venue, in the South of Market area, has been welcoming customers for 50 years. However, in July it was announced that its future was in doubt after new landlords of the building demanded a triple rent increase.

At the same time, the Stud’s owner of the past 20 years, Michael McElhaney, announced that he was planning to move back to Hawaii to care for his elderly mother.

‘The Stud has been such an integral part of San Francisco nightlife for 50 years … it really went straight to the heart’

The Stud’s regulars and wider LGBT community were shocked to hear the venue faced potential closure. So much so that a co-operative has been formed to take over the lease and secure The Stud’s future.

The co-operative currently has 15 members. They are united not only in their commitment to saving the bar but also in having individual expertise in the LGBTI scene.

Mica Sigourney (aka VivvyAnne Forevermore) is a drag performer who moved to San Francisco 12 years ago. In a phone call, he tells GSN that The Stud is practically his second home: He’s been running the weekly Friday night club, Some Thing, at the venue for the past eight years.

‘I was devastated; devastated confused and concerned,’ he says of his reaction when he heard that McElhaney was wanting to sell and move on. ‘Concerned for the community of artists and patrons who come together there for weekly or monthly events.

‘Very quickly, within about an hour or two, I’d formed this plan with some colleagues to form a cooperative to buy The Stud.’

Another member of the Save Our Stud co-op is Marke Bieschke, who has written professionally about San Francisco nightlife for 20 years. He is the publisher of The San Francisco Bay Guardian and the 48 Hills website.

Bieschke says news of The Stud’s potential closure was ‘shocking.’

‘I guess a lot of us have seen so much of San Francisco’s queer landmarks change hands or closed down completely, but The Stud has been such an integral part of San Francisco nightlife for 50 years that it really went straight to the heart.’

‘There is a lack of awareness of the cultural value that the Stud has to the community at large in San Francisco’

Like many other major metropolis around the globe, San Francisco’s LGBT scene has been hit by a spate of closures. This is partly due to a change in the way we meet and socialize, prompted by the rise of hook-up apps, and the fact that LGBT neighborhoods are often the target of urban gentrification – driving up real estate prices and rents.

Last month, we reported on the closure of Castro café Eureka. An estimated ten Castro restaurants and retails businesses closed or announced their forthcoming closure in June and July alone, including Books Inc, M&G Merch and Entour.

However, as Bieschke points out, The Stud is different. Running for 50 years, it’s part of the very fabric of San Francisco – a fabric that some worry is coming apart at the seams.

Last November, San Francisco passed Proposition J, agreeing the adoption of a Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund. This allows the city to pass on financial grants to businesses that have been running for more than 20 years and which contributes to an area’s history or identity.

The Stud is not yet listed as a legacy business but is in the process of applying. Even so, a tripling of the monthly rent – from around $3,800 to $9,500 – sounds like a dramatic hike. Is the co-operative confident of meeting this?

‘The current rate was negotiated with the current owner of the Stud and the previous landlord, and it was low,’ says Sigourney. ‘The tripling would bring the rent to around market value for the area.’

He says the previous landlord was aware of the cultural significance of the Stud, which is partly why a low rent was agreed.

‘We’re very confident we can meet that rent – it’s comparable to other venues as far as the area is concerned. However, it’s the motive for tripling that’s a concern; there is a lack of awareness of the cultural value that the Stud has to the community at large in San Francisco.’

Bieschke agrees, saying, ‘the co-op has enough experience that we’re definitely going to be able to generate the kind of events and excitement that would be need to meet that [rent increase].’

However, he believes the new owners need to be made fully aware of the Stud’s position in the San Francisco community.

GSN has been unable to contact the building’s landlord, City Commercial Investments, based in Pacifica, CA, for comment.

‘If these awesome folks can’t make it work, no one can’

The co-operative’s formation have been welcomed by District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who first proposed Proposition J.

‘Legacy Businesses like The Stud give our city its world renown character and are a major driver of tourism. Making sure that historic small business like The Stud are able to weather changes in the real estate will keep our city healthy and diverse.’

The Stud’s current owner, McElhaney, said in a press statement issued last week that he fully intended to transfer the business over.

‘I’ve made the choice to move forward with transferring ownership of the bar to The Stud Collective based on the diverse, multitalented, qualified group that they represent. If these awesome folks can’t make it work, no one can.’

The co-operative is also working with South of Market Area Supervisor Jane Kim and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD).

‘We can’t underestimate the importance of the Stud to the LGBT community, said Kim in the same statement. ‘Not only has The Stud been the site of important artistic and political events, it currently serves one of the anchor business for the future Tenderloin/SOMA LGBT Heritage District.’

‘It’s a business. If you believe in it, show up and enjoy it, because it’s only permanent as long as people are inside it’

Sigourney and Bieschke are confident that the co-operative will be successful in taking over the lease. When asked if they envisage making major changes to the venue, they both say that some change will be necessary to carry the venue forward, but that it will retain its inherent character and identity.

Subject to a rent agreement being reached, the Stud Co-operative are looking at hoping to take over the venue at the end of October. Both Sigourney and Bieschke say the ongoing support of the wider community is essential.

‘We’re a group of 15 now and we will probably need to grow,’ says Sigourney. ‘Besides financial support, we are looking for people who want to support the effort. If they have skills and want to be involved, we want to hear from you – they can email [email protected].’

‘It is a new experience and I absolutely love it,’ says Bieschke of working in a co-operative. ‘I find it harks back to the San Francisco scene of the 60s. It went out of style a little bit, as real estate prices started to rise, but I feel like we’re almost reviving a San Franciscan tradition by doing it like this.’

If you’re concerned about closures on the scene, both have a simple message.

‘If you care for something, when any business is in crisis, you must show up consistently,’ says Sigourney. ‘It’s a business. If you believe in it, show up and enjoy it, because it’s only permanent as long as people are inside it.’

‘Go out to your local bar, your local pub, your local dance club, support the organizations and nightlife businesses that helped queer movement grow in the first place,’ adds Bieschke. ‘You might be surprised how much fun you have!’