Steve Harm calls them the “Warehouse kids.” They come to downtown La Crosse, climb 49 stairs to his club, patronize a place that serves no booze or beer — all for the music.
The Warehouse for 22 years has offered live performances in an alcohol-free space open to all ages.
Now, its future hangs on a $200,000 fundraising effort that’s been struggling.
Harm needs the money to pay off loans and back taxes to the city and La Crosse County that date back to 2008.
“They only let that pile up for so long before they decide your building is better off in their hands,” Harm said.
More than halfway through the two-month campaign, Harm’s indiegogo.com site has raised less than 10 percent of what he says he needs to save his business.
“If it was based on goodwill only,” Harm said, “you couldn’t drive enough armored cars out of here a day, with all the goodwill that’s coming in on the Internet.”
Some big names in indie music have lugged gear up the Warehouse’s staircase — Everclear, Fall Out Boy, Trent Reznor of Nine-Inch Nails — but they’ve been tough to reach. It’s mostly Warehouse kids, young and old, who have pitched in to help keep the doors open, Harm said.
La Crosse musician Nick Maas, 18, was able to scrounge together a donation. His band, Neon, has shared the Warehouse’s plight by posting links online.
Like a multitude of fans who flocked to Twitter and Facebook to spread word of the venue’s fundraising efforts, Maas wants to save the place where he connected with friends and music during high school, both in the crowd and on stage.
“It’s not like you’re playing a bar,” Maas said. “You’re playing to people who actually want to see you.”
Music writer Mark Baumgarten joined the voices on Twitter, asking for stories from “bands and fans” who are familiar with the Warehouse. The Tomah native now is editor-in-chief of Seattle Weekly and author of the book “Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music.”
He credits his career to the strange world he first experienced waiting in line for a Warehouse show.
“Creative people are weird,” Baumgarten said. “What I learned at the Warehouse is they’re just people.”
But Baumgarten discovered an atmosphere at the Warehouse he had never experienced in rural Tomah, something he carried with him to college and music writing. He abandoned straight news writing after college to start a music magazine, a path that eventually led to his book.
“It (the Warehouse) allows you to really commune with the creative process,” he said, “in a way that was totally unavailable to me.”
Fifteen days remain for the Warehouse Rescue Campaign. People can donate $10 to $50,000, and earn anything from a plate of cookies to naming rights for one of the Warehouse’s steps.
Harm bought the building next to the Warehouse in 2007, thinking he could bring in steady income from a neighboring tenant, a beauty school. The school closed within months and the owner filed bankruptcy, leaving Harm with double the mortgage and taxes, and an empty building in the middle of a recession.
Two of the Warehouse’s unique qualities also complicate its finances. Harm abstains from forcing bands to buy and sell their own tickets, which he calls “pay to play.”
He also refuses to serve alcohol, despite the financial benefits he can see from his office window each weekend, as crowds of university students head for the bars.
“It’s hard to look at that and go, ‘That’s our power bill walking by in that one group right there.’”
Harm holds to the alcohol-free policy because he believes area youth should have a place where they can be themselves, find a creative outlet. It’s younger kids, who really embrace music, who buy CDs and T-shirts, Harm said.
It’s part of the Warehouse experience and makes the club stand out, Maas said.
“In a city where bars rule, you’ve got to have something to try to balance it out,” Maas said.
If Harm doesn’t reach his goal by Aug. 22, he won’t claim any of the money. Anything less probably won’t save the venue, he said.
Hosting about 8,000 bands in 22 years isn’t a bad track record for a small music club off the beaten path in Wisconsin, Harm said.
Problem is, Harm said, he wants to host 8,000 more.