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Arts Community Aims To Save Cultural Hive In North Park

The building's property owner says he's been offered $2.5 million for the space. But won't sell. Allen Hitch Jr. believes in Queen Bee's mission and wants to see it thrive.

As more breweries and restaurants open in North Park and rents continue to rise, the owner of one property says he's turning down multi-million-dollar offers so he can preserve a space for arts and cultural events.

Allen Hitch Jr., son of former City Councilman and North Park Business Association President Allen Hitch, bought the building from his father in 1995, when it was a 99 Cents store.

Photo credit: City of San Diego

99 Cents Store in North Park, 1955. Now site of Queen Bees Art & Cultural Center.

Now, it's Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center, which rents out its space for gallery exhibits, concerts, dance classes and weddings. Hitch said he was recently offered $2.5 million to sell, but won't, because he believes in Queen Bee's mission to provide a space for the arts.

"What am I going to do, sit on the front porch with two and a half million dollars?" he said. "I’m getting a lot out of this just like the people who come here get a lot out of this. I sell happiness here."

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Allen Hitch shows fliers of upcoming events at Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center, Jan. 3, 2017.

Hitch also believes in Queen Bee's owner, Alma Rodriguez. She was born in Puerto Rico and became a music promoter in Florida, then moved to San Diego in 2008 and started Queen Bee’s five years ago. But she’s had the dream of running an event space since she was a kid.

"I was 12 years old and was playing pool with my friends, and we got kicked out because it was kind of a bar," she said. "And I told my little posse that one day I was going to open a place where everybody can be together."

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Alma Rodriguez sits in her office at Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center, Jan. 3, 2017.

It took some time to get there, but she made good on her promise. She said the arts have been vital in her own life, and so she wants to make sure others get the opportunity for that enrichment.

"If it wasn’t for art, it was very difficult to deal with daily life," she said. "But if you have something that makes you feel yourself — take a dance class, come to a poetry reading — you have to have motivation in life for everything. And the arts is the way I found motivation for myself."

Photo by Kris Arciaga

A bee painting at Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center, Jan. 3, 2017.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

A mural of Ringo Starr at Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center, Jan. 3, 2017.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

A tile design of a bee at Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center, Jan. 3, 2017.

Rodriguez picked the name Queen Bee's after a magazine article dubbed her the queen bee of the local arts scene. But she said the point of her space is that all artists can use it to be the center of their own passions.

"There’s a lot of queen bees and a lot of need for creativity, and that’s what this place is," she said.

She's also taken the name to heart, dressing frequently in yellow and black with big bee-themed jewelry and decorating her walls with bee pictures, as well as work from local artists and a mural of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.

Meeshi Anjali, a dance instructor and creator of a type of line dancing where parents wear their babies strapped to their chests, holds classes at Queen Bee's and said Rodriguez supports local artists. He worries the center will get pushed out from North Park.

"If we aren’t careful, we could lose the arts," he said. "Over the last 15 years I’ve seen so many dance studios close in North Park and so many art studios close and be replaced by restaurants and breweries. You know, money talks, and it’s very tempting just to give in, but (Rodriguez) has a greater vision of preserving arts for the people and by the people."

Luckily, it’s a vision shared by her landlord, Hitch. He wouldn’t say what Queen Bee’s pays in rent, but said he won’t raise it. As long as Rodriguez wants to stay, he’ll keep the building, he said.

And Rodriguez wants to stay for a long time. She hopes to one day buy the space, and dreams of expanding to other cities. She said art should be cultivated now more than ever.

"As we see technology taking over our future, it’s important to people to experience the arts," she said. "If we don’t keep promoting, it might disappear little by little."

She, along with other queen bees in her hive, will work to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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