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Flint businessman eyeing nonprofit music venue for downtown

Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 4.03.16 PM Original story by Scott Atkinson for MLive
January 15, 2013

Flint, MI — When Joshua Spencer tells local business people he wants to open a new place downtown with music, food, and no booze, he gets the same response.

“They think it’s absurd,” he said.

But the 32-year-old owner of The Spencer Agency — a downtown ad firm — and founder of the nonprofit Ichthus Flint is unmoved.

He’s so confident that an alcohol-free spot will work that he’s already spent $30,000 on lighting equipment.

What he doesn’t have yet is an exact location. He said he’s in negotiations for a spot but said he hasn’t signed anything yet.

Spencer’s idea is to open a “more upscale” music venue downtown that would appeal to the 24-35 crowd. As a nonprofit entity under Ichthus, he said the idea wouldn’t so much be making money for himself, but to create another downtown destination to draw people to the area.

“It’s a hangout joint,” he said, adding that while there’s already an alcohol-free music venue in downtown Flint targeted at teenagers and young adults — The Local 432 — he sees this as an opportunity for

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something similar for the slightly older crowd. He said that while it’s still preliminary, he and Ichthus board members are playing with the idea of offering daycare services.

“I think it’s very complimentary to what Joel (Rash, manager of Red Ink Flint, which oversees The Local 432) is trying to do,” he said. “Whatever the venue is called, what I picture Ichtus building is a program that young people could look forward to, and graduate into.”

Rash said it’s been a few years since he’s heard Spencer talk about doing the project, but said anything that’s bringing more people downtown is a good thing — even if it’s a venue somewhat similar to the Local.

“In general we’re in favor of anybody providing space for bands to play,” he said. “The Local is the right spot for a lot of people but we definitely wouldn’t claim it’s the right spot for everybody.”

Spencer founded Ichthus Flint in 2001–the same year he started his ad agency–and through the nonprofit started promoting shows, particularly those featuring Christian rock bands at venues like the Birch Run Expo Center. He said he wants to take that experience and apply it to the new venue, this time bringing in a variety of national acts.

He envisions a lounge area with a bar that serves virgin cocktails and appetizers, a place that would be open during the day and a quiet place to grab a drink during a show or a place for students to hang

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out during daytime hours. He said Las Vegas is one of his favorite destinations and that he hopes to bring the flashy Vegas look to the venue.

He said that while he supports local musicians, and some may play there, his focus will be on national acts.

Scott Whipple, development manager for Uptown Developments, said he’s unaware of Spencer’s plan, but echoed Rash’s thoughts that more people downtown is a good thing.

“Well it would certainly add to downtown,” he said when informed of the project. “Anything of that nature is always good for downtown.”

Spencer said his religious beliefs as a Christian are the reason for keeping the place alcohol-free, adding that he thinks there are others who are looking for such a place.

“I have Christian friends and Hindu friends and Muslim friends. None of them want to hang out at a bar. They don’t want to be around drinking, they don’t drink, and they might still go and have dinner but then they’re like, ‘I’m out.'”

He also thinks there might be another side benefit to keeping the place booze-free. The people who do come to a show and want a drink will have to walk to nearby businesses. That, he said, was part of the idea from the beginning.

“Our nonprofit vision is really far beyond entertainment. It’s actually helping continue to increase and grow our city,” he said.

In the meantime, he said people looking forward to such a venue will have to wait. Once he’s secured a location, he said it will likely take 12-18 months of “gutting and renovating” to get it in shape.

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