City of Spokane, local musicians rally around the Big Dipper venue


By Aaron Bocook, News Writer

When Dan Hoerner was 19, he used a fake ID to sneak into a small Spokane venue called the Big Dipper. He never dreamed, that 25 years later, he would be the owner.

A Spokane native, Hoerner is best known for being the lead guitarist in 1990s Seattle emo band Sunny Day Real Estate. After a hard two decades of recording, and touring for little money, Hoerner retired from the music industry. He and his family bought a farm in Eastern Washington, far from the spotlight. After a short break, Hoerner could not stay away from music for long.

“A little more than a year ago now, I had a friend who had been down to the Big Dipper and had been inside the building,” Hoerner said. “He said to me, ‘The Big Dipper is such a ruin right now. There is no way you could ever have a business in it again. It’s probably going to be turned into a parking lot or something.’”

Hoerner said this incident resonated with him. After one of Spokane’s most iconic venues, 123 Arts, was torn down and turned into a parking lot, Hoerner decided he had to do something to save the Big Dipper.

“[123 Arts] was a place where I saw some amazing bands, like Fugazi. I had a practice space there, I played tons of shows there, and now it’s a parking lot,” Hoerner said. “It’s sad to see stuff like that go.”

After its heyday in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Big Dipper changed hands as a business several times. It hosted Christian-based RAWK shows through the early 2000s, and was briefly the location of the now-closed Empyrean Café. Since then, it has been falling apart.

With problems ranging from structural decay, deteriorating wiring and plumbing, and a general lack of maintenance, Hoerner has had his work cut out for him in the past eight months of renovation.

The single biggest setback for the Big Dipper has been raising funds to update the building’s sprinkler system, which comes with a $50,000 price tag. A new sprinkler system will significantly raise the maximum capacity of the venue from the now-low number of 110 occupants, Hoerner said.

Hoerner started a fundraising campaign through indiegogo, an international crowdfunding site focused on raising money for arts, music, film and small businesses. So far, less than $5,000 of the $50,000 goal has been reached. Before its re-opening, Hoerner hosted several private parties at the Big Dipper, intended to help raise awareness of the indiegogo campaign.

The members of Spokane band BBBBandits, one of the few bands that were invited to play the private parties, remember going to the Big Dipper in its original state.

“It was pretty grimy back then,” BBBBandits guitarist Ryan Tucker said. “They really cleaned it up, and opened up the space.”

“When I walked in, it was like time travel,” Tucker said. “There was kind of an emo-core band playing, and it was like, ‘Did I just walk into 1999?’”

“It was kind of strange,” BBBBandits bassist Colleen Vice said. “Definitely like going back in time. Ryan [Tucker] even found [early 2000s Spokane punk band] American Zero graffiti in the bathroom. So many memories there.”

Gawain Fadeley, lead guitarist of BBBBandits, remembers playing at the Big Dipper in his old band, the Rock Ness Monsters, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“After 12 years, playing there again was great,” Fadeley said. “It still sounds terrific, and the way the stage kind of envelops the dance floor is the best. It’s still the best place to see a rock show in town.”

Justin East, who performs as DJ Creepshow, played the first private party. He said that Hoerner has the right idea, but that in order for the venue to succeed, it needs a push from the community.

“[Hoerner] wants something good for the community, he truly does,” East said.

“I know  [Hoerner] has invested a ton of time and money into that place, but we need a better sense of community,” said East. “We complain so much about our city, but we don’t back people when they are willing to venture out.”

The city of Spokane has responded to Hoerner’s determination in a huge way. He just met with city planners and engineers who told him the city will be supplying the two inch water pipes needed for the sprinkler systems. Hoerner said this contribution will shave $25,000 to $30,000 off of the price.

“I am hugely closer to my goal. I am so excited right now,” Hoerner said. “The city is really behind us. They want Spokane to be revitalized. They want the Big Dipper to be an economic generator again, instead of just a black hole.”

“It’s a lot different around here now than back in the Rock Ness days,” Fadeley said. “Back then, we took everything for granted. Now it seems that folks seem to recognize how important it is to preserve what we’ve got.”

Hoerner said things are coming full circle.

Last Saturday, the Big Dipper officially opened its doors again with a benefit show for KYRS, Spokane’s thin air radio station. Although Hoerner said the Big Dipper will host some 21 and over events, he wants his venue to have lots of all ages shows.

“I think people of all ages should be able to see live music up close and in a dangerous, sweaty fashion,” Hoerner said.

Hoerner still remembers his first experience at the Big Dipper.

“I was about 19 years old, and I was playing in a band,” Hoerner said. “I was too young to be in the Big Dipper, because it was a 21 and over show that night. It was really cold, and I remember waiting outside for my turn to play, being really nervous, the door opening, playing for a few minutes, then straight back outside.”

“Steve Spickard, who I am buying the building from,” Hoerner said, “Is the same fellow that I faked out with my fake ID.”