White Horse Transitions to Nonprofit

Popular Western N.C. music venue White Horse Black Mountain is in the process of changing over from a for-profit enterprise to a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Typically, such a change would represent a fundamental realignment of the way a business is run. But according to the venue’s founder and board of directors, the change merely formalizes what has been reality for quite awhile.

Coming home again
Over the course of his adult life, White Horse Black Mountain owner/founder and WNC native Bob Hinkle has worked in most every corner of the music business: songwriter, touring and recording artist, producer, artists & repertoire representative, label head, artist manager and more. He has worked across with artists across the musical spectrum, including The Band, Kenny Rogers, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, the J. Geils Band, Harry Chapin, Etta James, Jim Henson and scores of others.

But Hinkle eventually became frustrated with the business. He spent two or three years as VP of Creative at a subsidiary record label for industry giant BMG. “And I hated it,” he admits. “They had about twice as many people with degrees in economics as they did people with the slightest idea of what music is about.” And after spending 40 years in New York City, he was ready for a change. In 2008, Hinkle and his then-wife moved back to Black Mountain. It felt like a homecoming: they settled in the house his uncle had built nearly a century earlier.

About a year later while visiting the local Chamber of Commerce, Hinkle met Bob McMurray. They bonded over their common backgrounds in music; McMurray had been one of the original owners of the Grey Eagle when it was located in Black Mountain. He invited the Hinkles to join him for a visit of a building he owned, situated right across the street from the Grey Eagle’s former location.

The space at 105 Montreat Road in downtown Black Mountain had previously been home to an auto dealership, and then a warehouse for antiques. When Hinkle first laid eyes upon it, the place was a mess. “There were massive piles of junk all around,” he recalls. “And the floor was in pieces.”

A special space
But Hinkle and his spouse saw past the clutter; they had a vision of the space’s potential. “Both of us looked up,” he says, “and we saw that the ceiling was all wood: great for sound.” The roof is arched like a Quonset hut, which is also good for acoustics. And while the space appears to be square, in fact it’s trapezoidal. “That also helps the sound,” Hinkle explains, “because it keeps those big bass [sound] waves from hitting you in the face.”

After looking the place over, Hinkle turned to his wife and made a request. “Give me a high C,” he said. The trained opera singer obliged. “And,” Hinkle recalls with a smile, “the room treated it very nicely.” Seven months later, White Horse Black Mountain opened its doors to the public. “We opened on November 8, 2008,” Hinkle notes with a laugh. “Right into the jaws of the recession.”

Right from the start, keeping White Horse Black Mountain afloat financially would be a struggle. But concertgoers flocked to White Horse, with many becoming regular visitors. “We began to turn it around,” Hinkle says. “Clawing, scratching and asking for help, we were able to keep it open on a monthly basis.”

The business rarely if ever turned a profit, but keeping the White Horse going would yield other, more intangible dividends. Hinkle recalls one August evening in 2009. “It was hot as hell,” he says, “in the low to mid 90s outside. We had a full house, about 200 people.” Lacking air conditioning, the room was exceedingly hot and stuffy. Onstage was Armenian vocalist Mariam Matossian, backed by Western North Carolina’s own world music ensemble Free Planet Radio. At one point in the show, Matossian asked everyone in the audience to stand. “Let me show you a very simple Armenian dance,” she told them.

“She encouraged everybody to make contact with the person next to them,” Hinkle continues. “It escalated until there was a circle of 150 people going around the outskirts of this big room, all doing this dance in the heat.” He vividly remembers thinking, “My god, maybe I’m doing the right thing after all.”

For the benefit
In the years since White Horse Black Mountain opened, the venue has been host to countless fundraising and benefit events. Hinkle says he recently attempted to draw up a list of all of them, eventually giving up when he counted around 50. His son Zach – currently one of the seven-member White Horse board – recalls his dad telling him, “I know that there’s got to be at least 50 more, but these are the ones that I can remember.”

Zach Hinkle is proud of the venue’s track record in that regard, but makes an important point. “You can’t do 50 of those benefits and expect to make any money [for the business],” he says. “Bob always puts everyone else first,” Zach says. “And if you’re doing that anyway, really trying to create a place that the committing feels at home, transitioning to nonprofit status makes the most sense.”

Official 501(c)(3) status from the federal government is due any day now; at present, the board is “winding down” operations of the for-profit entity. But in terms of how things operate on a day-to-day basis, neither artists nor concertgoers are likely to notice changes in the way the business is run.

Where changes will be evident, however, is in the way that White Horse engages with the community. A fundamental goal of the nonprofit venue is to bring the music space and audience even closer together. And nonprofit status “opens the door to collaboration with other 501(c)(3) organizations in town,” says board member, musician and frequent White Horse performer David LaMotte.

“White Horse is a community, not just a performance space,” says board member, writer and storyteller Gareth Higgins. “I wanted to put flesh on the bones of the idea that [the venue] is a member of this community. And this is the mechanism that creates the container for that to happen.”

The venue’s upcoming schedule features some of its highest-profile shows ever. Kenny Rogers’ original band plays on May 27; June 2 White Horse welcomes Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder John McKuen. And a tribute to North Carolina-born singer-songwriter Roberta Flack is planned for August.

Transparency and community
Zach Hinkle emphasizes that most of what a nonprofit does is already built into the way White Horse has operated for years. Nonprofit status “makes you fully and completely transparent, which is what this place is anyway,” he says. “No one’s going to get rich, but nobody was going to get rich anyway! That was never the goal.”

A new membership plan aims to cultivate the relationship between White Horse and the community. Details were announced at a sold-out launch party on April 21.

Memberships help sustain the White Horse and provide a bevy of benefits for members. The basic membership (“Appaloosa”) is $20 per month; it entitles members to a lapel pin, a $2 discount on all ticket purchases, and two “golden tickets” each year, good for any White Horse events. Membership also allows attendance at special members-only functions. Higher levels of membership each come with successively more benefits.

Same as it ever was
Zach Hinkle anticipates a question, asking it himself. “A week after we’re a nonprofit, when you walk in here and experience White Horse as a listening room, will it feel any different than the week before?” He answers his own question: “No. But we will be doubling our hours, opening up at 11 a.m. instead of 5:30, and building in educational programming and weekend songwriting retreats.”

After enumerating several more of the new nonprofit’s future plans, Zach Hinkle pauses, perhaps reminded by his dad’s recounting of the Mariam Matossian performance. He smiles broadly and shares one more item from the list. “We’re going to add air conditioning!”

But beyond that, some things are unlikely ever to change, like the way nearly every performance concludes. “Bob does this little benediction at the end of each night,” Higgins explains. “He says, ‘There are a lot of problems in the world. But when I look out here, I see a lot of people who are part of the solution.’” As it enters into its new phase as a nonprofit, White Horse looks to be at the center of seeking those solutions.