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Candace Renalls, Forum Communications, Published August 20 2012

Duluth’s first gay bar opens

DULUTH, Minn. - Alvin Berg and Vince Nelson made history three weeks ago by opening Duluth’s first gay bar.

“No one ever had the gumption to do it before,” Nelson said. “But Duluth has changed in the last few (mayoral) administrations. A lot has changed in Duluth.”

People in general are more open-minded today, they say.

So the two men, who have owned and operated the Flame Nightclub on Tower Avenue in Superior for six years, opened a Duluth version July 29 at 22-28 N. First Ave. W. in downtown Duluth

Duluth Mayor Don Ness is supportive.

“I’d like to think that as a community we are beyond making an issue of whether or not it’s a gay bar,” Ness said. “It just seems like a very old-fashioned debate. Of course we welcome this business to Duluth.”

Glitzy and upscale, the Duluth Flame Nightclub for the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community is a stylish addition to downtown Duluth.

“Duluth used to be a flourishing place at night,” Berg said. “It seems to be coming back, and we want to be a part of it.”

The new club is bigger and sleeker than its Superior counterpart. The second-floor nightclub features a black and dark-cherry décor under 12-foot-high industrial ceilings painted black that contrast with the expansive brick walls. There’s a centerpiece horseshoe bar topped with black quartz and a lounge area presided over by a Marilyn Monroe statue with a billowing skirt from “The Seven Year Itch.”

Then there’s the glittery dance floor, stretching along the line of windows overlooking the avenue. When the DJ starts mixing the latest dance music at 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, a multicolored lighting show and flickering images create a contemporary dance club atmosphere not seen elsewhere downtown. Lasers shoot rapid-fire streams of light; a fog machine adds drama. The sound system is state of the art, Nelson boasts.

Some visitors to the club stop in their tracks and say, ‘Wow, this is like what you find in the Twin Cities,’ ” Berg said. “That’s the feedback we get.”

Berg and Nelson say they’re aiming for a clean, friendly, fun club where both gay and straight people feel comfortable, and everyone is treated with respect.

“We want it to be a place where people who go out to dinner can come afterwards and have a great time, gay or otherwise,” Nelson said.

Like the Superior Flame, there’s no food service except for frozen pizza they’ll heat up for customers.

“There’s so many great restaurants in the area already,” Berg explained.

And like the Superior Flame, they plan to feature karaoke and occasional drag shows.

But, Berg says, the club is far from the stereotypical dim, dungeon-like gay “leather bar” with “things going on” in the corner.

Instead, the club has tasteful art on the walls. Pride and American flags are displayed. And flat-screen TVs play sporting events, music videos or shadow dancing.

But those who might be uncomfortable seeing two men dancing or holding hands probably should take a pass, the owners say.

Gary Boelhower, a gay activist in Duluth, is delighted there’s a club in Duluth for the GLBT community.

“Many GLBT people still in our society feel sometimes excluded,” he said. “We certainly are still excluded in regards to legislative recognition in several ways within our state and country. It’s important to have spaces where the gay and lesbian community can feel safe and accepted. And I think having the Flame Nightclub helps that process.”

The space “looks fabulous,” said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council. “The upper floor of the building has been vacant for many years, so this is a great use for it, and we have gained a new local property owner in our downtown.

“Downtown Duluth is very diverse and welcoming, so I know they have seen some good crowds already, and they’ll be a destination,” Stokes said. “Plus, this just adds to the nightlife offerings in that area, from Dubh Linn and Hanabi to Aces and Spurs.”

Nelson and Berg, life partners for 28 years, are no newcomers to the hospitality business. Combined, they’ve had 40 years’ experience. That led to their opening the first Flame Nightclub in 2006 in the former site of Louis’ Café on Tower Avenue in Superior. At the time, it was one of three gay bars in Superior; now there are two.

The Flame name, said Nelson, was inspired by the old Flame Restaurant that once stood on the site of the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, Nelson said.

With the Superior Flame’s success and changing attitudes in Duluth, they looked to downtown Duluth to open a second club.

“Duluth has a much larger population base,” Berg said. “And people want to go over the bridge to Superior less and less.”

Add to that the revitalization under way downtown, and the time seemed right.

“In the next five to 10 years, more and more is going to be happening downtown,” Nelson said. And, added Berg, businesses are investing in downtown, and that’s a good indication.

Ness sees it, too.

“We continue to see exciting investments in downtown,” Ness said. “There is a new generation of entrepreneurs in our area who want to be downtown and part of the revitalization we’ve seen in recent years.”

At first, Nelson and Berg looked for a building on downtown Superior Street. But they couldn’t find one with the square footage they needed and in a block they wanted to be. They found possible sites for lease. But because they would have to spend so much to convert a space into a nightclub, they wanted to own a building outright.

Besides, they wanted to invest in downtown.

When they expanded their search to buildings on the downtown avenues, they found more buildings for sale.

The two-story Daro Building on North First Avenue West, built in 1901, had what they were looking for. Each floor is 6,000 square feet. It’s near Hanabi Japanese Cuisine, Jitters Coffee House, Sammy’s Pizza and several bars. It’s by the Skywalk. It’s a block from two parking ramps and street parking is free in the evenings. Moreover, the previous owner had made considerable improvements, including replacing the roof, putting in new windows and doors and new exterior brick.

The previous owners also had revamped the first-floor storefront spaces, but plans to turn the upstairs into condominiums fell through when the recession hit.

The open, spacious second floor — used as a ballroom in the 1930s, a VFW hall in the 1940s and home to the Minnesota Ballet from the late 1960s to 1998 — had been empty for years. The downstairs storefront spaces were — and still are — leased by Three Irish Girls, a specialty yarn business, and Duluth Kettlebell Gym.

Berg and Nelson purchased the building in December for $297,000, according to city property records.

Working with LHB architects and local contractors, renovations overseen by Berg began in early May and took nearly three months.

The work included installing new wiring and plumbing, a sprinkler system, heating and air exchange systems, unisex restrooms and a handicapped accessible elevator. The original brick walls were tuck-pointed and sealed, the maple floors restained. They made a point of using local contractors and American products.

Of the cost, they will say only that it has been “substantial.”

Berg and Nelson say they have had no negative experiences along the way. Customers have been supportive, and so have nearby businesses.

Mike Maxim, co-owner of the nearby Dubh Linn Pub, doesn’t yet know if the nightclub will boost his business, but he sees no negative impact.

“It is not in direct competition for us; it has a much different feel,” he said. “But more businesses drive more traffic. It brings more people to the area.”

Berg and Nelson have good things to say about the contractors who transformed the building’s second floor into a polished nightclub. They even compliment the city’s building safety office, where they got prompt service and the process went smoothly, they said.

Word is getting out about the upscale new club open daily from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., with a full bar and a lineup of specialty martinis and cocktails.

So far, they say it’s drawing as many straight people as the GLBT community that’s their primary market.

“People still love to dance, and that draws a lot of people,” Nelson said.

And, he says, they provide a piece of the puzzle for young professionals looking to come to Duluth by offering another place to go out to dance in a nice atmosphere.

“We fill a niche nobody else has: being a dance club and gay,” Nelson said.

They say business has been very good. And many ask them: Why did it take so long for a gay bar to open in Duluth?