In a contentious hearing today at the regular meeting of City Council, Mayor and Council members largely seemed to side with many residents of the Hudson Hill community in opposing granting an alcoholic beverage license to the new performance venue Stage On Bay.
Located near Southbound Brewing to the west of the Viaduct in Alderman Van Johnson's district and not far from the proposed site of the nearly $200 million new Westside Arena, Stage On Bay has already scheduled its first show for Feb. 3, by the Marshall Tucker Band.
However, that booking was thrown into question as Johnson, then residents, and finally Mayor DeLoach himself, grilled venue owner Charles Schmitt as he spoke in favor of being granted the license, which is almost certainly vital to the business being successful.
Saying he "has major issues with this," Alderman Johnson said Schmitt should have picked a spot on the other side of the viaduct.
"Good concept, wrong place," said Johnson. Schmitt responded by citing his commitment of half a million dollars investment in the blighted area.
Schmitt pushed back against allegations from Hudson Hill neighborhood residents and Council that he hadn't reached out to the neighborhood enough to get their input.
"I can't force people to respond to emails and phone calls," he said.
When Council suggested Schmitt meet with the full Hudson Hill Neighborhood Association at its next meeting — which happens to be the night before the Marshall Tucker Band date — he said he would "probably have to close up shop" if that has to happen before they can open.
When the floor was opened up to Hudson Hill and nearby Westside residents, one said "we are looking for another loophole so we can deny this license."
A neighborhood leader said, "I promise you not a handful of people living in that area are interested in Marshall Tucker. What are we supposed to get out of this deal other than noise, confusion, and foolishness."
Bernetta Lanier, Westside resident and a former Council candidate, said the allowed zoning of Stage On Bay is legal but a legacy of racism. "We have lost neighborhoods because of our zoning," she said. "This will have negative impact on our community."
Echoing that line of thought, Alderman Johnson said there is much crime, poverty, and homelessness in that area of town, and "it's not a conspiracy, but it looks like a conspiracy."
Left unanswered was the question of why the nearby Westside Arena project, also scheduled for a full liquor license and a vastly more disruptive project in terms of scale, wasn't also held up for similar reasons.
As the discussion escalated, Mayor DeLoach, who had been largely silent, told Schmitt, "I think you jumped the gun on hiring Marshall Tucker before you got the liquor license you need."
DeLoach told Schmitt not only wouldn't he vote for the license today, but he also wouldn't vote for it if Schmitt didn't meet with the neighborhood again to assuage community concerns.
"That's on you," the Mayor said. "And if you don't make that happen I won't vote for it and we'll have to see you in court."
To which Schmitt responded, "With all due respect, I see your point and that's probably what will have to happen" — i.e., taking the City to court.
In an echo of previous contentious liquor license hearings, City Attorney Brooks Stillwell advised Council that they have "some discretion" on turning down liquor licenses, "but you have to tell applicants in advance."
Stillwell advised Council that if it's their desire to turn down the license, they would have to continue the hearing to the next Council meeting in two weeks.
The Mayor and Council voted to do just that.
Alderman Tony Thomas raised the point that the larger unsettled policy issues — of neighborhood concerns vs. private property rights and zoning — which seem to plague so many Council meetings still need to be formally addressed.
City Manager Rob Hernandez agreed and suggested that the issues should be discussed at the next regular workshop.
However, Mayor DeLoach had previously announced his intention to strongly consider doing away with the regular Thursday morning City Council workshops, held prior to each Council meeting since the Otis Johnson administration.