The fate of a proposed downtown music venue its developers have compared to the House of Blues in New Orleans could rest in the hands of the Mobile City Council.
The Council delayed its vote until Tuesday, Oct. 13, on an appeal brought by building owner and local attorney Buzz Jordan, who is seeking to overturn a Planning Commission decision against increasing the occupancy limit at 401 Dauphin St. to 850 people.
The building is in the Downtown Development District and the Planning Commission has denied Jordan’s request twice in the last year. The decision to delay the Council vote followed a lengthy hearing where councilors took comments from people in favor of and opposed to the request.
Scott Crompton of Huka Entertainment said the home-grown promotion company was in the process of signing on to manage the 14,000-square-foot proposed venue. He told councilors to view it as a smaller version of the Saenger Theatre and not a bar, as those in opposition perceive it to be.
“We are not a bar,” he said. “We’re selling a ticket, not a cover charge.”
Crompton said the venue would attract nationally recognized and touring artists who can’t fill the 1,800-seat Saenger or larger venues in the area. Crompton said the new venue would not impact Huka’s current relationship with the Saenger. He compared the proposed venue to “training wheels.”
“A lot of touring artists aren’t able to fill a theater, but can fill between 500 and 800 seats,” Crompton said. “We want to fill that void.”
The plans for the building, which has been vacant for years, include a $750,000 to $1 million renovation to transform it from an “eyesore” to a “beautiful, top-of-the-line” venue. Huka would work with law enforcement and security to help maintain a safe environment, something Crompton said the $40 million company does on a regular basis.
“The second-biggest expense of the the company is security,” he said.
Several nearby residents compared the proposed venue to the Alabama Music Box (AMB). Councilman Levon Manzie asked if anyone associated with AMB would be part of this project. Crompton said Dave Matthews, former AMB owner, does work for Huka now as a contractor, but would not be connected to the project.
Crompton added Huka would provide the space free to nonprofits and other community groups for activities during the day. He also said the venue would not be open every night and “promised” to follow all the rules.
Wanda Cochran, who said she lives and works at 465 Dauphin St., reminded the Council to stick with the laws on the books and added she is concerned over future use once an agreement between Huka, Jordan and Tom Townsend expired. Once the Council agrees to increase the occupancy, Cochran said, there’d be no way to keep it from being transferred to someone who might decide to break the rules.
Al Tenhundfeld, a resident at the Mattress Factory Lofts, said the condominium owners association were against the plan. He asked councilors to imagine the noise from 850 patrons at 2 or 3 a.m.
“A residential neighborhood is no place for this venue,” he said.
Commercial real estate agent Jean Lankford, who has an office downtown, said agreeing to the increase would put an end to the progress the downtown area has made in terms of quality of life. She said that area of Dauphin Street, which is outside both entertainment districts, has the largest concentration of residents downtown.
“I ask that you allow downtown to develop and strengthen what we already have,” she said.
Nonprofit coworking space
The Council will allow Fuse Project to use the fourth floor of the city-owned building at 200 Government St. as a coworking space for nonprofits.
At last week’s Council meeting, Fuse Project co-founder Grant Zarzour said the space would be open to 60 nonprofits that have an impact on the local community. He told councilors the participants had not yet been chosen. The idea is to help make nonprofits more successful by taking away some of the overhead associated with renting office space, Zarzour said.
Councilors delayed the vote for one week not only because of Council rules, but because some had questions related to Fuse’s mission for this particular project and on the selection process for nonprofit participants.
Councilmen Fred Richardson and Levon Manzie in particular expressed hopefulness that the selection process would afford nonprofits that closely reflect the city’s community an opportunity to participate.
On Tuesday, Zarzour presented Council with the guidelines for the selection process. The process is as follows:
Each applicant is reviewed by the Fuse board, which has distributed more than $100,000 to a diverse range of children in the city. A representative from the City Council and another from Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office will be invited to be a part of the selection process.
Each applicant must be a 501(c)(3) organization and have a mission that includes the betterment of the city. Ideal nonprofits will have five or fewer employees and include “outside the box” thinkers. The ideal groups will be open to new suggestions and show a willingness to improve the city. They also will have goals of having a major impact on the citizens of Mobile.
In a handout to councilors, Zarzour also laid out the goals of the coworking program. It aims to increase the net revenue of all nonprofits by 10 percent in the first year of occupying the coworking space. It hopes to create a transformational change in the ability of nonprofits to impact the city and at all times be transparent in its interactions with the Council and the city.
The city agreed to lease the space to Fuse for $1 a year for 15 years. If the city wants to get out of the lease agreement, it must give Fuse nine months’ notice.
In other business, the council extended the time limit given to the Planning Commission to amend a zoning ordinance on aboveground petroleum storage tanks. The time limit was extended to Sept. 30, 2016, although Planner Richard Olsen said he expects a vote on the new ordinance by the end of this year.
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