September 11, 2008

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Stone Church debt proves too heavy
Newmarket venue prepares to close its doors for good
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

On Aug. 28, the e-mail announcement went out, shrouded in a somber black blackground: “Barring intervention, divine or otherwise, these are the final shows that we will be presenting to you at The Stone Church, as we will be closing our doors on Friday, Sept. 12th. As for the days beyond that date, we do not know, but for the days between we extend to all of you an invitation to join us up on the hill as we celebrate four years of exceptional live music. Your Friends at The Stone Chuch.”

Sadly, for most people familiar with the ups and downs of this historic Newmarket music venue, news of the Stone Church’s closing was hardly surprising, and, frankly, a little expected, even to its owners.

“In some ways I’ve become numb to it,” co-owner Paul Nessel said. “We’ve been on the brink of closing for so many years — the shock has worn off a bit.”

The venue’s last scheduled shows are Nate Wilson Group on Wednesday, Sept. 10, and Sam Kininger Band on Thursday, Sept. 11.

So what’s different for the church this time? First things first. A little background history. After all, what is any historical landmark without the notable and sometimes legendary feet that have crossed over its threshold?

Built in 1832 as a Universalist Meeting House, the Stone Church was born. By mid-century, it was sold to the Roman Catholic Church, creating the first Catholic Church in Newmarket. The church added the famous steeple to the structure, and eventually sold it.

At various times, The Stone Church has served as a VFW Hall, a roller skating rink, and a shoe assembly plant. The Newmarket Wood Heel Company was operating in the building when a fire drove the business out of the church. After the fire, the former church was shut down for a year before three partners — former Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce director Peter Hamlin, Newmarket resident John Pasquale and former computer consultant Paul Nessel — stepped in. In 2003, the men put $750,000 into buying the building and renovating it, reopening the church as a music venue in 2004.

The Church built a loyal following, a diverse mix of students from the University of New Hampshire and community members old enough to remember the days when it was known as a hippie hangout. It quickly became a premier venue for both local musicians and major acts such as Phish, Bonnie Raitt, Bela Fleck, Joan Osborne, Patty Larkin, Percy Hill, Shawn Mullins, Bill Morrissey, They Might Be Giants, The Holmes Brothers, Hot Buttered Rum, Loudon Wainwright III, Johnny Winter, J. Geils and Aerosmith.

Though the Church has become a popular musical hub in the state, its owners have still not been able to crawl out from underneath the weight of their $750,000 debt, and the recent economy woes haven’t helped. In an June 9 interview with the Union Leader, Nessel explained: “We were able to build some traction after a year or so, but it’s definitely coming to a head. We just spent so much early on, we took on too much debt, and we’re not making enough to pay it back.”

In recent months, the Church has made several last-ditch efforts to keep the place going. In July 2008, the Church organized a fundraiser to halt its closing. In an interview with The Portsmouth Herald on June 6, managing partner Chris Hislop explained the dire nature of the situation: “I don’t want to see the place close, I don’t think anybody does. It’s my favorite place to see a show.”

They also formed the Friends of The Stone Church in April 2008, a group consisting of local community leaders and business owners, as well as The Stone Church Street Team, a grass-roots effort to promote the venue’s shows all over New England.

Unfortunately, these efforts have proven to only be a band-aid for a much larger wound.

“The benefit in July got us through this summer,” Nessel said, “but the problems that we’ve had for several years are still here.”

Several large forces have been conspiring against the Church over the years, and their toll has overwhelmed the modest venue.

“It’s tough for a place like this in a location like this,” Nessel said. “Newmarket is undergoing a redevelopment. It’s a great little town, but it’s never really been a tourist destination, so in the summer, when people are heading to the beach areas and the college kids are away, we lose a lot of business.”

The anticipated closing is affecting not only the owners and partners, but also the musicians who have made the venue a sonic landmark.

“It’s tough for some of the regular musicians,” Nessel said. “Nate Wilson [of The Nate Wilson Group] started playing here when he was in high school, so this is kind of like a second home for some of them.”

Despite the bleak forecast, faith in the Church still lies within its famous stained-glass windows depicting saints that are decidedly appropriate for a church-turned-concert hall: Jerry Garcia, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, John Lennon and Janis Joplin.

“The community has been great — last night before one of our shows, I saw some locals putting up posters rallying people to pull around the place,” Nessel said. “There’s still a little bit of hope — we are looking for some assistance from the bank — but whether or not that comes through is still up in the air. When all is said and done, at least I can say we’ve done a great thing here.”

Though many don’t want to believe it, and though many are still counting on the Church’s ability to rise again and again like a musical phoenix, the words of that Aug. 28 e-mail may very well be The Stone Church’s epitaph: “We feel most fortunate for the opportunity to share the time with you, the bonds we have created, no matter how great or small, are a testament to the power and importance of not only this great venue, but of live music itself.”