The first time Jay Harris was pitched the idea for Gate19, his reaction was pretty much the same as everyone else’s: a puzzled look and a lot of head-scratching.
A music venue … in a mall? In Knoxville Center Mall, of all places, the East Knoxville behemoth that gets more press for its emptiness than it does its retail base? How’s that going to work, he wondered?
“I was exactly like everybody else — ‘I don’t know, man, because this location is not the greatest in the world,’” Harris told The Daily Times this week. “But the more I thought about it, the more I started to think about the potential. I remember going there when the place opened (in 1984) and how lively and vibrant it was. Even today, you see people walking around and taking pictures of the dead mall and the abandoned storefronts — not because they’re hating on it, but because they’re mourning it and remembering when it was great.
“If I can step in and fill a role and get more bodies in the building, maybe that could be some kind of driver. That’s not my catalyst, of course, and it’s not my primary driver. I’m not there to put the place upright; I’m there to put on shows and create experiences, but if it all serves a purpose and it helps, then all the better.”
Harris knows a thing or two about achieving success in the face of adversity. He’s been active in the East Tennessee music and arts scene for more than a decade, working with various organizations and groups before coming on board at The International, the concert venue located in Knoxville’s Warehouse District (between downtown and Fort Sanders), when it first opened. In early 2018, owners of The International decided to close its doors, and Harris faced a major decision. He opted to purchase and continue to operate The Concourse, a smaller club adjacent to The International, and over the past 18 months, he’s built it into a reputable establishment that provides a club for the bulk of East Tennessee’s EDM (electronic dance music) scene.
The Concourse isn’t solely an EDM venue, however, and the owners of Gate19 — which occupies the former El Patron Event Center, whose owner still has a controlling interest in Gate19 — recognized Harris’ eye for talent in recruiting him to come on board the venture. As the managing agent of Gate19, he’s currently working with marketing and talent buying teams to fill out the venue’s calendar. (The hip-hop act Twiztid played for Gate19’s soft opening last month, and the punk legends in Black Flag are on the schedule for a January show, but other than that, there’s nothing on the books.)
“But we’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” Harris said. “I’m hoping that in the next three weeks or so, you’re going to see things begin to populate. We’ve not completely shut out any genre, and we’re looking at everything with open eyes. We’re looking at what’s possible here, what can be done here and what can be done in a manner that makes everybody as happy as possible.”
Striking that balance has been instrumental in keeping The Concourse open for shows. The biggest challenge that venue faces is one similar to what Gate19 will: location.
“If you want to go to a show I’m involved with, you better really want to go to that show, because it’s not like you’re just going to swing by one night,” he said. “One of the big questions I get asked about Gate19 is, are people going to go out of their way to see a show there? But, have you been to The Concourse? There’s nothing around us, either. You have to make an effort to go there. And it’s a challenge, but it’s one I think we’re up to and one we’re used to.”
The team he’s assembled at The Concourse, he added, will play a big part in the expected success of Gate19. Going back to his days with The International, that was a core component of that venue’s success. The employees, he said, make or break places like The International and Gate19.
“If you get the right vibe with the right people, you cultivate a spirit of family and a culture of family, and that bleeds over,” he said. “Patrons can’t help but feel it on the periphery. Every single venue you go to is going to have its own family culture, but ours was really intense and personified.”
And whether their commitment leads them to work beneath a bridge at The Concourse or in a shopping mall on life support at Gate19, they’ll do it, he added.
“I was talking to someone the other day who said she couldn’t wait until February when she can say, ‘Remember that time I went to the mall and saw Black Flag play?’” Harris said. “I’m confident the familiarity will come, just from the people connection. It will feel familiar, because you’ll have the same bartenders and the same security staff from The Concourse. It all comes down to the people.”