Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Aaron Duma and his partners could hardly have chosen a more difficult moment for RiverHaven’s public debut. Extensive remodeling had kept the doors closed since they purchased the former American Legion building at 701 First Ave. N. more than a year ago. Their goal: to create an elegant events center in Moorhead, a smaller version of the Sanctuary Center in downtown Fargo that would be perfectly sized for smaller weddings, parties and meetings.
Between purchasing the 90-year-old WPA-built structure from the city of Moorhead and extensively remodeling its interior, they’d sunk nearly $1 million into the project. But then, just as the open interior and panoramic Red River view were ready to begin hosting guests, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
Now, though, RiverHaven is finally welcoming guests. Not only have private bookings begun a gingerly revival, with almost a dozen small weddings and parties since its opening at the end of June: Duma has revived the weekly “patio parties” several years ago for the former occupants, the Broken Axe and Usher’s House.
“I worked for both of them, and I remembered how popular they were,” he says of the outdoor evenings of food and music. “At the same time, the one negative thing I kept hearing about our turning the building into a private events center was that people were sad they would miss enjoying the beautiful building and surroundings.”
Beginning in August, RiverHaven has been giving Moorheaders their chance to come by again without a wedding invitation. The events center is hosting evenings of food and music outdoors featuring dining by popular food trucks and music by local and regional favorites.
“It would be no fun to do all this work and not share it with anybody,” Duma says. “This is a way to give our musicians a place to play again and our guests to share an evening of good music, good food, good company and good cold drinks.”
Musician Pat Lenertz is the master of ceremonies for the riverside productions, opening the evenings with a 90-minute set. Then he turns the microphone over to others – so far, Tom Peckskamp, Mike Holtz, Nathan Pitcher and Jon Wayne. Charlie Parr takes the spotlight tonight with his renditions of Americana and blues. Other upcoming dates include the Cropdusters on Sept. 17, Diane Miller Sept. 24, and Bob Marley Night with Matty Johnson Oct. 1. Additional dates are posted on RiverHaven’s Facebook page, along with a list of the food trucks on hand each week.
COVID-wary precautions have influenced the way the patio receives guests. Seating is limited at tables spaced six feet apart. Guests buy a table for four, rather than come and go as in the past, and table-hopping is forbidden. Servers are masked, and several points of sale prevents long, crowded lines. All food and drinks are served in disposable dishware.
All gate receipts are given to the musicians. Food vendors keep all their sales. Duma says, “Our alcohol sales are putting a little money in our people’s pockets.
“We want to do this as safely as we possibly can,” Duma emphasizes. “I’m immune-compromised myself. I want to keep it that way myself. So far, everybody has acted safe. I think we’re all just happy to have a couple hours of something like normal – to lean back, enjoy the music and forget about our problems.”
Which is not to say that running RiverHaven has so far been trouble-free. When Duma and partners Jon Rustvang, Kayla Cash and Jade Nielsen, along with Aaron’s father Ted, originally envisioned their first months of operation, they already had a dozen weddings and events on the books each month for June, July and August, with more in the works for fall. COVID restrictions clearly upset many clients’ plans. Instead, the slimmed down calendar has included several weddings of 100 guests or fewer and graduation parties that had been postponed earlier in the year.
He’s also looking for other public events that can be hosted safely and responsibly. An organization called Time Bomb Wrestling is staging a match in the parking lot this weekend. Duma and his partners are looking at indoor entertainment in the wide-open upstairs pace that they’ve created by removing the old kitchen and bar that bisected the hall. “We’re talking about things like socially distanced comedy shows, dinner theatre, maybe dueling pianos – something that’s fun and safe to do this winter.
“I won’t lie. It’s been tough,” he admits. “Business is not great right now. We’d expected to have done dozens of events to date.
“But I’m still optimistic. As we all figure out how to live with this disease, we’ll find a way. People will still want to go out and live their lives.
“I’m thinking about all the positives. This building is breathtaking. Since we remodeled, our utility bills are only a fourth of what they were. We only have to staff it when people are c