After a year of effort, Victorian Square expects to soon become the first area in Lexington to allow customers to carry alcohol between restaurants and bars.
Downtown boosters say the shopping center's designation as an Entertainment Destination Center would be an important piece in a surprising burst of energy in the downtown bar scene.
Despite the recession, at least eight new bars, clubs and restaurants will be opening over the next couple of months in downtown, two of those in the historic shopping center at the corner of Main and Broadway.
"Opening a bar is one of the few things you can do in this economy that's recession-proof," said Robert Garrison, an owner of The Chase Tap Room at 135 North Broadway in Victorian Square. He and business partner Chris Heflin will soon open The Loft, a night club lounge, a few steps from their current spot, also in Victorian Square.
Victorian Square has received state approval for the Entertainment Destination Center license but is awaiting permission of Lexington alcohol regulators.
In an Entertainment Destination Center, customers can leave one bar inside Victorian Square carrying an alcoholic drink and enter another bar, or go to a common area like the atrium.
Once that's in place, Garrison and other bar and restaurant owners in Victorian Square plan to band together and pay for live music, comedy acts and other entertainers to perform in the expansive atrium.
"We think it will provide over-the-top fun in an incredible venue," said Becky Reinhold, president of Victorian Square Associates.
Reinhold estimated the plan could be "up and running in the next 45 days." It will be tried two or three evenings a month at first, then potentially each weekend.
Victorian Square will soon have seven bars, restaurants or lounges that serve alcohol. The two newest will be The Loft on the second floor, and Pie Bar, an upscale Italian restaurant that's taking the space of Brooklyn Pizza.
Becoming a destination
Bar and restaurant owners said the spate of new openings fits well into public and private efforts to revitalize downtown and create more entertainment outlets to appeal to young adults.
"Regardless of the economy, Lexington is seeing a revival of downtown," said Isaac Kurs, an owner of the soon-to-open Blu Lounge Soundbar at 208 South Limestone. "More people are heading downtown, and downtown is becoming a destination."
Heflin and others said they were encouraged by city leaders' emphasis on downtown, including plans to spend much of Lexington's federal stimulus money on projects to benefit downtown. Those include new sidewalks and the Newtown Pike Extension, as well as a plan to relocate the Lexington Farmers Market to a redesigned Cheapside Park.
Heflin offered what might seem like an odd thank-you to The Webb Cos., the developers vilified last year by supporters of downtown nightlife after they razed the historic block that included The Dame and Buster's. The company plans to build CentrePointe, a luxury hotel and condo project, but has not yet begun construction.
"The Webbs inadvertently gave us the kick to get our momentum going," Heflin said. With The Dame block dismantled, "it pushed the center of downtown from Upper and Main over in the direction of Victorian Square," Heflin said.
"It was an opportunity for businesses to move into empty, dead spots," he said.
And they have.
Blu Lounge Soundbar will bring live music to two floors of formerly vacant office space on South Limestone. Baker's 360 will open in a renovated top floor of the Chase bank building, once occupied by the Lafayette Club. It will serve lunch and dinner, with a cocktail lounge and a dance floor.
Brad Shepherd and Daryl Royse have worked since November to convert lawyers' offices at 257 West Short into pulse nightlife, which they call a lounge, dance club and show bar.
All these openings seem unexpected in a recession that has claimed hundreds of thousands of jobs and seen disposable income plummet.
But Vince Carlucci, who expects his SkyBar-Lexington to open later this month, said it makes sense.
"When times are good, people celebrate. When times are bad, they commiserate. But they always turn to alcohol as a companion," said Carlucci, who has operated several bars and restaurants. His new bar will overlook downtown from the penthouse floor of the Court Square Building at 269 West Main Street.
"A lot of macroeconomic factors are at work," said downtown developer Phil Holoubek. "If you are able to get a loan, interest rates are so low it makes it more attractive to invest than in the past."
The bar business can potentially generate more income than a restaurant because the work is less labor-intensive, and there is a higher profit margin on alcohol than food, said Robin Campbell, owner of Cheapside Bar & Grill, which recently renovated its outdoor patio.
"It's definitely more lucrative to have liquor than food, if you sell a lot of it."
Campbell, whose bar has survived plenty of economic ups and downs since opening in 1985, said of the current economic crisis: "People are still going out; they're just not spending as much money."
The increased competition does not worry current downtown bar owners.
Several agreed with Sandy Fields, owner of The Rosebud Bar at 121 North Mill Street .
"The more the merrier," said Fields, who just opened Silks Lounge next door to The Rosebud.
"I want bars up and down Mill Street. It builds an energy where everybody benefits. I'm really excited about what's going on."