By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL
At long last, the Iron Horse Music Hall has a new owner, and music could be emanating from the venerable Center Street location as soon as February.
The Parlor Room, a nearby music venue run by a nonprofit, announced last month that it has signed an agreement with Eric Suher, the current owner of the Iron Horse, for a transfer of business assets, including the venue’s liquor license, and a 15-year lease to operate the music venue, which has been shuttered since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our interests were aligned,” said Chris Freeman, president of the Parlor Room Foundation, on the agreement with Suher. “We both wanted to see the legacy of the Iron Horse continue. We both think it’s been this incredibly important place in Northampton.”
The purchase is the culmination of a series of efforts by the city to get Suher to either sell or reopen his music venues, an ongoing process dating from last February, when the License Commission revoked one of his liquor licenses. Suher appealed the revocation to the state before the two sides came to an agreement that bought him more time to either sell his licenses or reopen the venues himself.
Freeman said in an interview that he is in talks with local restaurants and other consultants to make plans to once again serve food and drinks at the establishment when it reopens, one of the big draws for the venue before its shutdown. He said he expected the venue to be ready to start booking shows again sometime early next year, with hopes for a reopening in February, the 45th anniversary of the Iron Horse’s original opening.
“February has been our very ambitious goal,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a sizable amount of work that needs to be done, and we’re committed to opening it in a way that promotes our values of accessibility as a mission-based organization.”
Freeman did not disclose what the Parlor Room paid to acquire the lease, but said the organization will be launching a capital campaign in November to solicit donations to help support the agreement. He also said that part of the money for renovations would come from a $73,000 American Rescue Plan Act grant the organization received from the city, originally for restorations to the Parlor Room.
In a statement, Suher said that the Parlor Room’s nonprofit status contributed to his decision to sell the venue to them.
“The fact that the Parlor Room is able to seek funding from the city of Northampton to help with necessary improvements to the room was definitely a deciding factor with my decision,” he stated. “I know the Parlor Room’s staff has the passion and commitment to continue the tradition of presenting a great mix of regional, national and international talent on a nightly basis.”
Freeman said the Parlor Room had filed paperwork with the License Commission to officially begin the transfer process for the Iron Horse.
“They can’t formally transfer until the lease and everything is in place,” Freeman said. “It’ll probably be Nov. 1 when we actually have the keys to the place.”
Music scene landscape
Since the shuttering of Iron Horse, the music scene in Northampton and the greater Pioneer Valley region has changed dramatically. Newer venues, including the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence and The Drake in Amherst, have since opened. Many of the venues operate on a nonprofit, rather than a commercial, business model.
The Parlor Room, a venue originally opened by music label Signature Sounds Recordings to supplement its record business, switched to a nonprofit model last year.
“Ultimately, our goal in this is not to be the most profitable company, but to create a space that is accessible to musicians, accessible to patrons and really helps with our community as a whole,” Freeman said. “Our mission is to enhance the health and vitality of our community through the power of music.”
While the Parlor Room’s goals in running the Iron Horse may not entirely be economic, the city is sure to see the Iron Horse’s reopening as a sign of improvement for Northampton’s downtown economy, one that’s still working to recover from the full effects of the pandemic.
“I think this is tremendous news,” City Council President Jim Nash said. “We’re reestablishing Iron Horse as a performance space, which has been a part of our downtown’s economic engine.”
Freeman noted that the return of the Iron Horse could incentivize downtown businesses, such as Thornes Marketplace, to stay open later, hoping to attract customers who come downtown to see performances at the venue.
“From just a morale perspective, there’s a lot invested in the Iron Horse,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride within Northampton for its musical legacy, and Iron Horse is at the heart of that.”
Originally established in 1979, the Iron Horse was purchased by Suher in 1995, becoming a fixture of the city’s music scene. It closed in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, and has remained closed since, although there were plans for a performance in 2021 that ultimately fell through.
In a statement, Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra credited the License Commission for its actions that encouraged the deal to reopen the Iron Horse to take place.
“Hats off to the Northampton License Commission for their foresight in incentivizing the transfer of this key entertainment asset,” she said. “I extend warm congratulations and best wishes for ongoing success to Chris Freeman and his team.”
Alexander MacDougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.