About 9:30 Thursday night, Janell Otis and Jill Biscombe walked from Pavilion toward Suite, passing Howl at the Moon.
As lines filled at these EpiCentre nightspots, Biscombe, a Charlotte native, said: “I've never been to a place downtown that was this crowded.”
The EpiCentre has exploded onto the center city nightlife scene. Since its first two nightspots opened at College and Trade streets this spring, some competing spots have lost business. As a result, at least one bar may close and an owner is concerned about another's long-term prospects.
But other spots say they have benefitted. Some managers and owners say the EpiCentre has increased their pool of customers and led to a more diverse, entertaining scene.
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New spots are expected to open at the EpiCentre later this year, and a similar project is coming soon. Those developments, along with the EpiCentre's launch, could signal a shift in downtown nightlife: from a cluster of locally-owned places frequented mostly by people living nearby, to a regional scene with many national franchises.
“They're forcing people to get serious about entertainment in this town,” said Adam Whalen, who owns Loft 1523 in Elizabeth. “Because of that you'll see some places get better and you'll see some places go out of business.”
The first EpiCentre spot, Whisky River, opened in April. Suite and Pavilion launched in May, followed by Howl at the Moon in June. People sometimes wait more than an hour to get in. The spots are especially popular Thursdays, when tipsy partygoers drift from Pavilion's weekly happy hours to the other three.
They are drawing people who live uptown and nearby – people who used to go to other places. Hom, Grand Central, Buckhead Saloon and Loft 1523 managers and owners report losing business, in part because of the EpiCentre. Grand Central general manager Bram Bitton said management is “strongly considering” closing the bar on Trade and Tryon streets because of slumping business. Breakfast Club is maintaining sales, but owner Jody Sullivan frets that any weekend now could be its last solid one. “Everybody's concerned,” he says. “If we can get through their big honeymoon period, we'll be just fine.”
Charles Wilson, who visits bars five days a week for his CarolinaNightlife.com site, says that places are being phased out. “Because in Charlotte,” he adds, “we're a go-to-the-new-bar type of city.”
Take uptown residents Nick D'Antoni and Natalie Phelan, for example. D'Antoni, 26, and Phelan, 23, stopped going to Alley Cat and now hit Whisky River and Howl all the time.
Many EpiCentre customers come from outside Charlotte – such as Rock Hill, Concord and Gastonia – says Bob Durkin, president of Bar Management Group, which runs the spots.
“The EpiCentre's gotten so much exposure and hype, it brings a different demographic into uptown,” said Tommy Timmins, who owns The Attic, Connolly's and Madison's.
And they bar hop. “Having EpiCentre in uptown has only helped,” said Nathalie Friedlander, general manager of RiRa's, an Irish bar on Tryon Street.
Sales at Timmins' three spots are up 25 percent over last summer, for example.
General manager Jason Astephen thinks Buckhead, at College and Fifth streets, will survive because it offers a unique feature (live music four nights a week) and is close to the EpiCentre.
Those factors could prove crucial to a spot's success, managers and owners say. So could innovation. More competition has forced spots to be aggressive. Alley Cat hosted a Playboy Playmate, while Hom booked popular techno deejay Paul van Dyk.
Some have doubts
The scene should get more competitive. Three more spots are expected to open at the EpiCentre this year. N.C. Music Factory, scheduled to feature multiple bars and clubs, is also coming soon.
The demand for all these places is not there, insiders say. They cited Charlotte's size (fewer than 2 million people) and slowing residential condo market. “We just don't have that many people going out,” Wilson said.
But Durkin thinks the addition of a bowling alley and a movie theater, festivals and statewide advertising for the EpiCentre will draw more people downtown. So will the NASCAR Hall of Fame's 2009 opening.
Steve Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Elevate Magazine, which covers nightlife, agrees. Most places can survive for a year without strong business, he said, and by a year from now they could bounce back.
Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, says some spots will have to close. “That's just market dynamics,” he said. But the EpiCentre “will in the long run buoy the entire hospitality industry.”
That depends on the habits of people such as Otis and Biscombe. Since the EpiCentre opened, Otis, 27 of Dilworth, and Biscombe, 32 of Myers Park go there weekly. Otis still hits The Attic and Biscombe Buckhead. They no longer go to old favorite Brick and Barrel.
“We still love (most of) our old bars and we'll still go,” Otis said. “But the excitement of a new place, you can't help but come.”