The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Monday, July 31, 2017

Will Suher Shrug?

I fully support the sentiments expressed in a Letter to the Editor by Joyce Davis that appears in the current issue of the Valley Advocate, defending the too often put upon Eric Suher. Mr. Suher is the founder of the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, a consortium of Northampton music venues that includes The Iron Horse (duh), The Basement, The Calvin Theater, Pearl Street and Mountain Park. The letter was written in response to a prior issue of the Advocate which printed a feature on local music entrepreneurs that portrayed Suher as a music promoter primarily interested in profits.

As Davis points out in her response to the criticism of Suher's business practices:

It is a business people — not a social service agency. There are business costs — employees’ payroll, venue supplies and upkeep, insurance, all sorts of behind-the-scene costs, etc., etc. that they must pay. Businesses need to turn a profit to remain sustainable & viable. It’s a pretty basic concept. To continually bash [IHEG owner] Eric Suher for his business successes is just sad and indicates limited knowledge that although music is part art, it is also a large part business.

Suher first emerged on the Northampton scene in the early 90's as a t-shirt tycoon with a lot of money to invest and a strong passion for music. At the time, nearly all of the major music venues in Hamp were on the ropes, struggling financially and in danger of closing. Had they done so, the entire Northampton music scene would have collapsed, with devastating repercussions for the downtown restaurants, bars and retail shops that rely on customers from all over the Valley and beyond to come to Hamp for the shows and then patronize the local businesses before and after.

Suher started with the Iron Horse, and as each of the other major Hamp venues staggered towards bankruptcy he rescued them, stabilized their finances and turned them into profitable places where thousands could enjoy the joys of music on a weekly basis. By rescuing the Northampton music scene at its moment of greatest peril, Suher is more responsible for today's economic success of downtown Northampton than any other single individual. It wouldn't be hyperbole to suggest that every downtown businessperson should silently say to themselves, "Bless you, Eric Suher," every time their cash register rings.

But in reality, Suher doesn't get much thanks. This is despite the fact that in 2015 Suher literally put money into the pocket of every downtown merchant by, at his own expense, leading the legal fight to liberate the downtown from an illegally created so-called Business Improvement District (BID). BIDS are terrible for downtowns for a number of reasons, but mainly because they create a crony capitalist culture that destructively divides the downtown business community against itself into insider/outsider groups with local politicians also getting in on the act.

In Northampton, the BID was particularly destructive because the fees they charged were a barrier to entry for young entrepreneurs with a dollar and a dream, who often can't afford to pay the fees in their early typically struggling years. This barrier to newcomers the BID created worked contrary to Northampton's role as not just an economic center but a cultural one as well, because a steady supply of new blood in the economic system is what keeps the central business district attuned to new cultural trends. The reduced number of new startups made Northampton less able to reflect current trends, undermining the hipness of the whole scene. BIDs also encourage the replacement of local shops by national chains with deep pockets who can easily afford to pay the fees.

When the BID was finally declared by the courts to have been an illegally formed entity that should never have existed in the first place, every former BID member got a nice addition to their bottom lines as the result of their new freedom from BID fees. You might have thought that Suher would've received high praise and expressions of gratitude for putting extra money in everyone's pocket, but in actuality he received mostly criticism and insults. Suher was attacked by established business insiders who had liked the barriers to fresh competition the BID fees provided them, and also by politicians who disliked the loss of their ability to meddle in downtown affairs through the manipulation of BID policies.

Eric Suher doesn't appear to give a damn what anyone thinks of him, but the long term danger of the relentless and misguided attacks on Suher is that he may one day get tired of being the Atlas holding up the downtown Northampton business and music scene and instead shrug off the burden and go make money somewhere else. It would be a tragedy if downtown Northampton finally learns the true value of Eric Suher only by losing him.

Looking towards Starbuck's from the steps of City Hall.

View from a table in Pulaski Park.

The amazing Miss Flo's.


JD said...

Thank you for acknowledging my comments and adding very pertinent information to the discussion. I was previously unaware of much of what you explained. Here's hoping others who agree with this viewpoint will also speak out. The Northampton music scene is a real treasure in this area and I have even more respect for Eric Suher & his endeavors to keep it available to all area live music lovers now!

carlos tropicana said...

I agree with most of your reporting on Suher. However, he's emblematic of a larger issue NOT reported here. He's making a profit on his various cash cows but putting very little back into upkeep of his various establishments, and additionally, has some very peculiar prohibitions in place for newer performs to gain traction in Northampton. Talk to most unestablished musicians and they'll offer you a different picture of Suher's practices. That is all.

Anonymous said...

how do you know IHEG is a "consortium"?

Tom said...

I'm calling it that based on the dictionary definition - "an agreement, combination, or group (as of companies) formed to undertake an enterprise beyond the resources of any one member." Since IHEG consists of five separate venues (companies) working towards the same goal of presenting music....Is there a word you are thinking of that would be better?

Brad Smith said...

I've followed Northampton's love-hate relations with Eric since he first emerged on the scene. The reality is he has kept all of his venues afloat, at this point, for much much longer than any of their original owners ever did. And although they all most likely turn a tenuous profit, the larger picture is their potential increasing value as real estate investments. Eric is a buy and hold investor. I have no idea if he ever intends to cash out, but he isn't getting any younger and I'm not entirely sure if he has any heirs who might inherit his portfolio. When and if the much maligned Eric Suher ever decides to deaccession, it'll be interesting to observe what happens next. It must get annoying for him, however, to listen to the peanut gallery of complaints in the meantime.

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