When 191 Toole is not rocking for an all-ages concert, the Epicenter Church band takes the stage.
Once the home of longtime concert venue and youth haven Skrappy’s Youth Collective, the space at 191 E. Toole has been open under nondenominational Christian ministry City on a Hill since January.
Blue paint now covers the mural that marked the building as the latest incarnation of Skrappy’s, which closed in early November, losing momentum after a 2005 fatal shooting at its Broadway location and the departure of founder Kathy Wooldridge. It is a clean slate for the venue in the Warehouse Arts District, dubbed “191 Toole.”
The brick walls, now lined with pews, still house a concert venue and safe space for youth, but these days a worship service and Bible studies join the weekly lineup.
When City on a Hill and partner Epicenter Church of Tucson discovered the vacancy in November, they saw it as a godsend. They, like so many others, wanted to find their place in Tucson’s growing city center.
“If you want to help the most people, you go to where the most people are congregated,” said Nick Lang, the pastor who started Epicenter Church about four years ago.
At a block party last summer for Roskruge Bilingual Magnet School, City on a Hill and Epicenter Church partnered for the first time, grilling hot dogs and giving away hundreds of backpacks, hygiene items and clothing.
“The main thing is we just want to love on people,” said Tom Collins, executive director of City on a Hill. “I think when a lot of people think of Christians, they think of finger pointing and yelling, and not everyone is like that.”
City on a Hill does not exclude bands from 191 Toole because of differing religious beliefs, said Collins, who played at Skrappy’s with his metal band years ago.
Since hosting about a dozen bands at its grand-opening show on Jan. 11, the venue has welcomed a variety of music genres and bands such as Deafheaven, Blood on the Dance Floor, Macaulay Culkin’s band Pizza Underground and Touché Amoré, among others. Theology does not always match.
For an Aug. 25 show with Future Islands, the venue will experiment with dividing the space and serving alcohol to the 21-and-up crowd.
“If Christians can’t coexist with people who don’t believe the same thing, and they can’t love them genuinely, then you’re not exactly following Jesus,” Lang, 28, said.
Not everyone has easily accepted a Christian group stepping in where Skrappy’s left off, but most skeptics come around after several shows, Collins said.
Matthew Baquet, a longtime friend of Collins and the Club Congress booker and liaison, grew up in spaces such as Skrappy’s. Not religious himself, the 23-year-old helped 191 Toole secure some early shows.
“They love music and they also love Jesus, and they have found a space where they can celebrate both separately,” Baquet said.
A down payment downtown
For now, with renovations still underway and no full-time staff, most of the outreach at 191 Toole happens during concerts or at the free dinners served after the 6:30 church service on Sunday nights.
By early 2015, Collins hopes to see kids hanging out at after-school programs, taking music lessons or life-skills classes. He sees the ramshackle basement, strewn with construction material and pocked with bullet holes, as an office space and green room. He imagines a warming kitchen upstairs and barbecues in the parking lot outside.
As of last week, a fire code inspection found the property, with the exception of several minor violations, “up to snuff,” said Tucson Fire Department inspector Glenn D’Auria.
In addition to about $1,000 in monthly rent, City on a Hill guaranteed the property owner about $22,000 in repairs in the next two years. Collins expects much of that to go toward expanding the bathrooms. In the process of filing for nonprofit status, City on a Hill gets by on concert profits, church giving and thrifty volunteers. All of it is an investment in the future and downtown.
The epicenter of culture
For Epicenter Church, a downtown location was a long time coming after starting on the northwest side and then sharing space at the Vineyard Christian Community, 625 N. Second Ave.
As downtown booms, Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Michael Keith expects an increase in these kinds of organizations.
“I think there are a lot of young professionals and millennials that are going to actually be seriously looking at living down here and working down here and starting and maintaining families down here,” Keith said. “As they demand those services, you will see more faith-based organizations and private education institutions to support that demand.”
About 100 twenty-somethings show up for church each week, many of them musicians in bands that play downtown, said the musical worship leader for the church, Mike Almeroth, 29.
“That’s something important to preserve to Tucson, and it’s unique to Tucson, that arts and music culture,” Almeroth said. “I think personally for the church, one of the things we want to prove — and you can’t just say it; you have to prove it — is that we love this city, and we love the people and we want to be an asset.”