After 34 years of sweat-soaked ruckuses and ear-shattering volume, the Che Cafe on the University of California San Diego’s campus is, apparently, fighting for its existence once again.
Over the years, the nonprofit collective has booked shows at the tiny venue with such high-profile acts as Nirvana, Jimmy Eat World, Billy Corgan, Bon Iver, Bright Eyes and Green Day -- before those acts had broken, of course. But the site of thousands of all-ages punk, metal, indie-rock and hip-hop shows (among other social events) could be shuttered indefinitely after extensive repairs were directed by campus fire marshals in the wake of assessments by ISES Corporation, a consulting service which identifies and quantifies facility maintenance needs.
On Tuesday at 2-3:30 p.m. at the Earl Warren Room in Price Center West, a University Centers Advisory Board (UCAB) will vote on cutting the Che Cafe entirely from its maintenance budget, which, critics say, could put an end to the club’s existence as we know it.
"The thing is, they’ve known about a lot of the repairs, and they keep pushing them out of their budget," Che Cafe core member Rene Vera said. "In our ‘Master Space Agreement’ with the school, it states that they’re responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of the building -- but they’ve kept deferring things to the point where it’s become inoperable. So, basically, now [the UCAB] is saying, ‘We have a yearly budget, but we want to cut you out of it to allocate that money to other things.' "
UCSD Public Information Representative Christine Clark said that the decision on Tuesday will be largely made by the students.
"The UCAB is a student-chaired board comprised 80 percent by students," Clark said. "The Che Cafe falls under the budget for University Centers, which is funded entirely by student fees. So, the vote will be a student-to-student issue. If the board votes to eliminate the Che's maintenance budget, they would have to close their doors toward the end of summer. The most important thing to know is that budget cuts are based on student priorities, and usage of student programs and facilities. They've done a recent survey of 1,800 students, which showed a low level of interest in the Che compared to other campus services and programs. Eighty-two percent of students surveyed said they have never attended a show there. Seventy-eight percent of the surveyed students viewed maintenance at the Che as a low, or very low, priority. The students themselves are evaluating what they want and need, and what they can afford within their budget."
While the Che has been around for more than three decades, the building housing it is much older.
"The building is over 70 years old," Clark said. "According to ISES Corporation, which grades buildings with .1 being the best score to a .6, which would require a complete demolition, the Che scored a .52. Overall, $722,471 worth of maintenance would have to be done to the building to bring it up to code, using the ISES report as a guideline. A closure of facility would result in $854,212 savings in their 2014-15 fiscal year budget. The board has discussed options for the Che to continue their programming elsewhere on the university, though. They would have special access and booking rights to the Loft and the Stage Room, for example. These are just discussions at this point, but the students are proposing alternatives."
Moving the Che's shows to other venues, however, may not be an option financially.
"[The UCAB] has given us a ‘Relocation Draft,’ which says we’ll need to vacate the building and operate out of an office on the campus, with any live shows hosted by other bars on the campus,' Vera said. "We’d go from volunteer workers -- who handle all of the live sound, booking, cooking and door duties – to booking agents. That’s it. We’d have to hire outside security to work the events and outside sound engineers to run the shows. As a nonprofit collective, we'd never be able to sustain those costs. Obviously, the way we operate is much different. And even though they say the relocation would be temporary, they’ve given us absolutely no timeline as to when we could come back. The vote is only for this year's budget, yes. But there's no guarantee we will even be in next year's budget. I asked them, 'If the Che is cut out of this year's budget because there isn't enough money, what makes you think that there will be more money next year to cover this maintenance?' Their response was, 'I don't know.' "
This is not the first time the venue had faced an existential challenge. In 2012, the club had fallen behind on insurance payments, and in order to stay open, had to raise $12,000 immediately, a story covered by San Diego CityBeat
and the San Diego Union-Tribune
. Ultimately, the funds were raised, but the situation made some wonder how something so fundamental to a live music venue slipped through the cracks.
"We have 10-15 volunteers at any given time," Vera said. "We try our hardest to do everything, but since our members are students and unpaid volunteers, our staff changes.... I graduated a year ago, but I can't leave now because it's such a mess."
Some supporters of the Che are circulating an online petition
on Change.org, requesting that the UCAB vote "no" on the current budget proposal at Tuesday’s meeting. Organizational rules require 10,000 signatures on a petition for it to be brought before the board.
It comes as no surprise that the San Diego music community is upset about another possible venue closure, having lost the Griffin, 4th&B, Anthology and Brick By Brick in recent memory. Pinback frontman Rob Crow joined the discussion on Twitter Sunday night: "My life would have been f---ed without [the Che Cafe]."
The Nformals frontman Joshua Kmak, echoed Crow's sentiments: "I love the Che because of how raw and real it is, as opposed to a bar where there's a sound guy tapping his foot and looking at his watch. The Che has nothing but friends. It's where I've seen the most expression in a venue.… It's a place where you don't even need a band to get in a lineup. If you have something to say in a creative way, the Che will take you in."
There aren’t many venues in town hosting all-ages shows in a safe, sober environment and with the possible closure on the horizon, the city would lose a valuable historical, and cultural, site.
When asked what would happen to the young patrons that often attend the club’s shows if it were to shut down, Kmak said, "There are few places these kids are free to go nuts at -- and the Che is their headquarters."
Dustin Lothspeich plays in Old Tiger, Chess Wars and Boy King. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.