116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Jan. 10 announcement that Belle’s Basix would close in February sent shock waves through the local LGBTQ community.
Cedar Rapids’ only remaining LGBTQ bar, at 3916 First Ave. NE, formerly known as Club Basix, had been the one institution that held on for 25 years as gay bars declined and social media became ubiquitous.
In those 25 years, the LGBTQ community made significant gains in acceptance and legal protections, both in Iowa and nationally. But that also meant spaces like Belle’s Basix weren’t frequented as much, said former owner Andrew Harrison.
“It’s a double-edged sword of acceptance. They don’t need us anymore, but when they do need us, they expect us to be there,” he said. “Before I wouldn’t close because I thought the gay community needed it. But they haven’t been coming in.”
Harrison cited sluggish sales and liquor liability insurance costs as significant factors in his decision to close Belle’s Basix after 10 years of him owning the business. But with the next closest LGBTQ bars in Iowa being in Iowa City and Des Moines, the queer community clamored for a space to fill the void.
By Jan. 24, Jason Zeman and two partners in Corridor Entertainment Group, the owners of Studio 13 in Iowa City, stepped in to purchase the nightclub. Belle’s Basix reopened as Basix on March 11.
Three months later, the business has shown that the closure wasn’t the end of an era — it was the beginning of a new chapter for the LGBTQ space.
What’s happened since?
In little more than a month, Zeman and the owner’s group, which owns several bars in Iowa City, have renovated the inside and outside of Basix for a completely new look that grabs attention from the street.
“I saw the opportunity here. It has a great community … that wanted a good space to come to,” Zeman said. “The potential’s here, it just needed a little TLC and upgrades.”
The building hadn’t been updated or renovated in over 10 years.
The outside brick and most of the inside is now a sleek black that makes neon-colored signs pop on windows advertising drag shows. Dated faux brick facades have been removed, as have most of the nonessential walls in the interior for an open floor plan.
The old brown tile floors that lingered long after McDonald’s vacated the building were finally replaced, the bar got a sparkly face-lift, and new TVs display whatever’s happening on stage for everyone to see, now matter how big the crowd is.
Soon, Basix plans to add a patio. Later, it hopes to offer food.
But more than aesthetics, being a successful LGBTQ bar in this age lies in how the space makes its patrons feel. With a full weekly roster with drag shows, drag bingo, karaoke and more, Basix is not just a place to drink.
“I tell the staff we should do our best to make sure everybody that leaves here feels better than when they came in,” Zeman said. “There’s a reason to come here besides sit at the bar. We’re an entertainment venue, so we need entertainment.”
So far, the changes have paid off. Zeman said sales over the last few months have exceeded expectations.
Even with inflation rising and operating costs hitting the bar and restaurant industry hard, the bar’s belonging in a larger group helps take the edge off the pain for some expenses. Basix has more than doubled its staff’s wages but also has been able to bring vendors in with pricing that Harrison could not approach at Belle’s Basix.
After being involved in ownership of Studio 13 for 11 years, Zeman said dynamics of queer spaces are changing, but not necessarily for the worse. Over the last decade, LGBTQ people have felt more comfortable going to other bars, and straight people have felt more comfortable coming to gay bars, where they experience unconditional acceptance.
As the bar evolves, exposing everyone to someone who is different from them while also giving them representation will be an important part of ensuring the queer space is successful. Listening to feedback, Basix has made an effort to increase representation for people of color in shows.
“I want everybody to come in and see somebody who’s like them,” Zeman said.
And as anti-LGBTQ legislation continues to proliferate in Iowa, he believes spaces like Basix will see a renaissance in the LGBTQ community.
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