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Flush With Charity

While the future of Tess’ Lark Tavern remains unclear, one thing is obvious

It might seem strange that a bar fire would inspire laughter, music, art and altruism across an entire city. Yet that is exactly what has happened in the wake of the smoke and flames that consumed one of Albany’s most popular venues early last month. The outpouring of support for its owner, Tess Collins, seems to be a genuine expression of appreciation and affection.

Erica Rangel was a regular at Tess’ Lark Tavern for years. She attended numerous benefits as a patron and, when she became president of Amnesty International at Albany Law School, she began throwing her own fund-raisers there. “Several years ago, my best friend Jackie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Tess helped her throw a fund-raiser to benefit disease research. It was an all-day event. Tess provided drink specials and helped to make it a real success. So naturally she was the first person I went to.”

According to Rangel, Collins never hesitates to volunteer her time and space.

Fund-raisers at the Lark Tavern have raised money for local artists, international refugees, wells in Afghanistan and (ironically) an art gallery that caught fire last year.

“Because of that fund-raiser, we were able to have the gallery that we have today,” said Samson Contompasis, adding that the money Collins raised paid for the walls of the restored gallery, which is also his home.

So, when a fire broke out at the Lark Tavern early last month, effectively gutting the historic building and destroying a stage where many local performers have stood, it was no surprise that Contompasis and many others leapt at the opportunity to return the favor.

Although it is unclear whether Collins and her tavern ever will reoccupy the now-gutted buliding, a flurry of fund-raising events already has raised tens of thousands of dollars for her and her displaced employees—and more are scheduled for this month. Longtime friend Matt Baumgartner, who owns Bombers Burrito Bar and Wolff’s Biergarten, was the first to respond. After receiving a phone call from Collins the morning after the fire, Baumgartner immediately put up a Web site inviting people to donate money to the bar and its owner. The Web site raised close to $5,000 in the first few hours.

So far, between all of the fund-raisers, her supporters have donated roughly $60,000.

“It’s our way of giving back a little of the love that Tess has given us,” said Mike Eck. “Tess has been really unique in trying to foster the arts and cultural scene in Albany. This money is for her, for all that she has done for us.”

In conjunction with other tavern resident musicians, many who got their start on Collins’ stage, Eck and his band, Ramblin Jug Stompers, will hold a fund-raiser at the Linda this month. “The money that we raise is going directly into Tess’ hands, to do with as she sees fit,” said Eck.

Collins has already paid rent this month for her full-time employees and says that her part-time workers will be getting bonuses. And while she is still paying bills on the burnt-out establishment, she states that she has yet to touch the money that has been raised on her behalf. “I don’t like the attention,” she said. “It’s hard for me. People are trying to hand me checks and I don’t want to take them. Legally, I’m being careful.”

“She didn’t ask for this,” stressed Baumgartner, pointing out that the Web site specifically states that all the money raised would go directly to Collins, not the restoration of the building. “We raised all this money without asking Tess and we’re not going to ask her how she’s spending it.” To date, the site has raised more than $22,000.

The future of the building, owned by local optician Mike DiNapoli, remains uncertain. “I told Tess that it was my intention to bring the building back to its original condition,” he said. “A lot of goods still have to come out before we can assess the full extent of the damage and, obviously, a new lease would require new terms. No commitments have been made on either side.”

DiNapoli said he does not expect any of the fund-raising money to be offered for restoration work on the building, and that he would not want it anyway.

Although nothing has been decided concerning the building, Collins has stated that she intends to open back up as the Lark Tavern, “wherever that has to be.”

“I love that space,” she said. “I’m devastated not being there, but I don’t know the amount of the damage, what is going to happen or how long it will take. I miss my employees. I miss my customers.”

—Ali Hibbs





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