By Daniel Taylor 
BELLEVILLE – Belleville’s most historic music venue is still attracting big-name music acts, while expanding the area’s music scene.
For a city with a population of just over 50,000, you wouldn’t think Belleville would be a destination stop for prominent recording artists, but it is and it has been.
In March 2002, Mark Rashotte purchased what is now known as the Empire Theatre  with a vision of turning it into a state-of-the-art venue for live performances and cinema.
Sixteen years later it has turned into just that.
Manager of promotions Andy Forgie has been working at the Empire since 2003. He says there wasn’t a definitive venue to host live music in Belleville prior to the opening of the theatre.
The only time people in Belleville would have been able to see notable entertainers before the opening of the Empire was in the summer at the Waterfront Festival  (which still exists) and once in a blue moon when a private promoter would put on a show at the Yardmen Arena  or Centennial Secondary School, he said.
“We have been presenting national and international recording artists,” he said. “To date we have had 28 inductees of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame  play at our venue. I would put it up pound for pound against any venue in the country.”
The Empire Theatre is a pioneer for bringing big-name musical acts to Belleville, Forgie said.
“I am a fan of music and entertainment. I pinch myself when I see some of the artists who have come here to perform – artists that once upon a time, the only way you were ever going to see them was if you went to Toronto or Montreal or Ottawa. There’s no chance you would ever see them elsewhere.”
The venue has predominantly hosted rock, pop and country music acts, a reflection of the Belleville area’s demographic. There is an argument to be made that the Empire Theatre is in part responsible for the current music coming out of the area, he said.
“Certainly there have been a lot of new musical acts in the region that have come on the scene” since its opening, said Forgie. “I think that some of them have been encouraged by this facility. They have been able to perform here in an opening-act situation, where they can open up for a much larger famous band. This is something (for the musicians) to strive for.”
The Empire also puts on an annual event called RockFest  during July in downtown Belleville. The festival hosts prominent names in Canadian music, such as the Glorious Sons and Sum 41, both of whom headlined the festival last year.
Duncan Armstrong, a Quinte West municipal councillor who is also a musician, acknowledged the importance of the Empire Theatre’s contribution to the local music scene.
“It’s improved our culture because of the acts they bring in,” Armstrong said. “But it also provides an opportunity for local artists to get their 15 minutes of fame.
“One group, for example, Moon Sugar: they played at RockFest last year with the Sheepdogs and the Glorious Sons, so that’s the way they may get discovered. That’s the very big positive thing for local musicians.”
The Empire’s next concert is Thursday, when country music star Gord Bamford performs at 7:30 p.m.