Kim Commons heard the plans for Tempe Marketplace, and his “blood went cold.”
“I heard the plans for Mesa Riverview and my blood went frozen,” he said.
Commons is the owner of the Omni Center shopping complex — a streetside strip mall on the southwest corner of University Drive and Loop 101 in Tempe, less than two miles from both the mega-scale Tempe Marketplace and Mesa Riverview developments. At the time of the malls’ announcement, he operated a sports bar at the complex.
By his estimation, competition with new sports bars at the large shopping complex was going to sink his bar, saturating the market with more than 30 in the immediate area.
Rather than get pushed out of business or get swallowed by the soon failing economy, Commons took a proactive approach to business.
“I knew I had to change things and as a chess player, I know how to think one step ahead,” Commons said.
Commons began his chess career as a child, eventually travelling the world to partake in a number of tournaments. Ultimately, he earned the title of international chess master. Even after retiring from the professional chess world, Commons still thinks one step ahead.
“After the usual period of pure despair when facing such a convergence of massive problems, I started searching for business options that would allow the center to tray and survive these hard times,” Commons said. “Out of the various options I considered, supporting live music became the primary choice.”
The Red Owl sports bar occasionally had live music on the weekends and had a small stage. Commons took the gamble and committed to the live music angle.
“There used to be a big kitchen,” Commons said. “We tore out and scrapped a $60,000 kitchen.”
The area immediately next to Red Owl opened up and Commons converted it into a second and larger club space, extended the liquor license and called it Club Red. The two clubs allow for either a larger or a more intimate music experience.
Depending on the show, concerts are generally either 18 or 21 and up. Previous acts have ranged from 70s band Quiet Riot to new up and comer Allan Stone.
As part of his determination to develop a niche market, Commons’ perused other music-related stores to set up shop in his complex. But it’s the additional networking and synergy amongst the businesses that really sets this complex apart.
Band Oasis, a musician rehearsal space, operates down at the other end of the complex. James Koza and his wife Donna opened the store five years ago after operating a similar chain of stores in California. The space is available by the hour (with prices ranging from $17 to $25 per hour) or a lock out for the month.
Each practice space is fitted with all of the amps, stands and microphones a group needs, Koza said. There is even a drum set in each room.
In a good month, the business sees about 250 bands, and members travel as from as far away as Prescott or Tucson to rehearse at Band Oasis.
Often times, band members will network with other musicians at the rehearsal space, sometimes even forming new collaborations in different genres.
“We try to emphasize networking,” Koza said, explaining that bands often help each other. “A new band doesn’t know how much to ask for a gig.”
Part of what makes Commons a somewhat unconventional landlord is that he does more than simply collect the rent: he works hard at helping his businesses succeed, Koza said.
Once or twice a year, Commons allows bands to showcase their music at a concert where the bands don’t have to pay for the space.
“We work a lot with Kim (Commons),” Koza said. “No one wants to hire a band that no one knows.”
Often, bands that will perform at Club Red/Red Owl will warm up or rehearse at Band Oasis the afternoon before the show.
Next to Band Oasis is Naked Dave’s Music, a store dedicated to custom guitars and mom-and-pop customer service.
“It’s all family here,” said Dave as he gestured around his store. Music is a passion he wants to pass on to his customers, whether it be through buying a new guitar from any range on the price spectrum, renting a school band instrument or providing lessons, accessories and instrument repair.
Originally, Naked Dave’s owner Dave Johnson wanted to open his store in Commons’ complex, but there wasn’t a space available. When a place opened up a couple years ago, Johnson jumped at the chance.
“It wasn’t going very well (at the old location),” Johnson said. But with the synergy of the complex, business is going well now.
One time a band had lost a few pieces of equipment at a different venue, Commons recounted. They called ahead to Naked Dave’s and by the time they arrived, the equipment they needed was ready for them, Johnson said.
Besides strictly live music, the complex is also home to a small record store, Rockzone Records, that buys, sells and trades CDs, DVDs and a lot of vinyl.
While the store doesn’t provide live music, it does offer a music aficionado. Scott Robenalt, who has managed the store for two years, lived the rock star lifestyle while working as a roadie and security member on a few tours of the rock band Kiss.
Music is still Robenalt’s life and he still has instincts about bands.
“Scott tells me which 80s bands to book,” Commons said. So far, his intuition has paid off.
The store also functions as a ticket outlet for some of the shows at Club Red/Red Owl.
The way the stores work in synergy only helps keep the individual businesses stronger, Commons said.
Even the Sub Factory sandwich shop, Max Market drive-in liquor store, Phoenix Tattoo parlor, Bookmaze used bookstore and Best Muay Thai Boxing studio — all at the heart of the Omni Center, 2155 E. University Drive — are trying to appeal to a specific demographic, Commons said.
Now, while the recession is slowly allowing businesses to improve, the shopping complex is at least breaking even every month, Commons said. While strip malls throughout the valley and even down the street remain empty, breaking even is more than what other places can say.
“That’s success in my book right now,” Commons said.
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