20110907-cover-0101Wednesday, September 7, 2011
By Walter Pierce  •  Photos by Robin May

A venerable, live-music institution in Lafayette for decades, Grant Street Dancehall may stop booking bands by late this year due to problems with its parking lot, which isn’t its parking lot. Confused? We’ll explain.

Doesn’t it suck when you go to hear your favorite band at Grant Street Dancehall and the club charges you five bucks to park — on top of the cover charge to get in and hear the music? Well, actually it doesn’t. Grant Street isn’t hitting you with the parking fee. The club doesn’t own the lot.

Most people don’t know this. They just get ticked off at Grant Street. They hem and haw, cuss and spit. Some don’t come back, even though there’s safe, well-lighted parking for $2 just three blocks away at the Vermilion Street parking tower. It’s a matter of principle, and it’s hurt Grant Street’s reputation and, more important, it’s bottom line. It’s gotten so bad that manager Toby Doré isn’t booking acts beyond November. He’s considering getting out of the live-music business. By 2012, Grant Street could be just another former warehouse on the margin of downtown Lafayette.

“I’d say it’s like 50-50 [chance] because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” admits Doré, who has been booking acts at the club for about 18 months and took over management early this year. “It’s solely going to be a result of what happens between now and November. The parking lot is a big issue.”

Indeed, the parking lot rolls practically right up to the front porch and entrance of the venerable honky tonk, which opened in 1980 in a turn-of-the-20th-century brick and wood building that began life as a fruit warehouse abutting the railroad tracks. (Technically, the “front” of Grant Street Dancehall faces the actual Grant Street, which runs between the club and the tracks, but early on a former owner moved the entrance to the “rear” or Cypress Street side of the building, no doubt to take advantage of the large, free parking lot.) For the first 25 years of Grant Street’s existence as the premier — and for much of the 1980s and ’90s about the only — live-music venue in downtown Lafayette, the parking lot at Grant Street was Grant Street’s parking lot, for all intents and purposes; it was open and parking was free. And Grant Street reaped the benefit, staking its claim as one of the hottest live music joints on the Gulf Coast, hosting over the years performers such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dr. John, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Leon Russell, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Albert King, Warren Zevon and Medeski, Martin & Wood, to name a few.

But several years ago the owner of the lot decided to monetize the patch of asphalt. Not coincidentally, this was about the time that nearby Jefferson Street was exploding as a nightlife mecca for Acadiana. Parking became a premium, and the lot at Grant Street was transformed into a golden goose.

This is where it gets a little complicated

The parking lot adjacent to Grant Street Dancehall is owned by a little-known non-profit called the Lafayette Neighborhoods’ Economic Development Corporation, and the lot is actually a parcel of a much more substantial property owned by LNEDC: the six-story Evangeline Apartments at the corner of Jefferson and Vine streets a block away from the honky tonk.

The Evangeline building w20110907-cover-0102as originally the Evangeline Hotel, which opened in 1928. Decades later, the state bought the building and ran a Department of Motor Vehicles office out of it.

But in 1993, former Mayor Kenny Bowen helped broker a deal in which the state donated the by-then vacant, dilapidated and asbestos-ridden property to LNEDC, which “offers financial assistance to new and expanding small business in the Parish of Lafayette,” according to its website, through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development block grants and other government means.

Yes, it’s one of those deals.

Run by a local-based board of directors headed by board President Joe Dennis, LNEDC entered into a 15-year agreement with New Orleans-based HRI Properties, which converted the old hotel into an apartment complex for low-income senior citizens and managed the building. The apartment complex began accepting residents in 1995. (The arrangement between LNEDC and HRI ended early this year in court after LNEDC basically had HRI evicted. We said it was complicated.)

Another parcel of the Evangeline property is home to Cité des Arts, a nonprofit performing arts center on Vine Street behind the apartments housed in what for decades was a bus station. Still another parcel is now Guamas Restaurant on Jefferson Street. Both Guamas and Cité were once connected to the Evangeline Hotel.
It was during HRI Properties’ management of the Evangeline Apartments, about six years ago, that the parking lot adjacent to Grant Street went from free to fee.

20110907-cover-0103
 Grant Street Dancehall manager/booking agent Toby Doré

An HRI manager at the time approached Guamas’ wife-husband owners Julieta Tarazona and Rubens Mesa about taking over the parking lot next to the dance hall. (The story gets apocryphal at this point: some sources say Guamas was essentially strong-armed into taking over the lot — the restaurant leased its space from HRI — although Mesa declined to discuss the parking lot situation in detail and deferred comment to his wife who didn’t call us back before our holiday-shortened deadline.) But the short of it is Guamas took over management of the lot and began charging $5 per vehicle to park in it on nights when downtown was hopping — typically Thursday through Saturday. Mesa managed the lot, hiring an attendant to collect the fee and stringing a chain around the perimeter to prevent daytime and off-night use of the lot.

Grant Street Dancehall was shuttered for part of this time, but a couple of years ago Lafayette entrepreneur Danny Smith bought the club, and live music returned to the venue — Smith, for a time, hosted hip-hop nights at Grant Street, but the urban crowd later migrated to Karma — and that’s when things started to get dicey. (Smith didn’t return a call for comment on this story.)

According to Doré, who took over booking live music at the venue along with friends Gus Rezende and David Goodwyn in early 2010 under the rubric Bodacious Productions — a limited liability company begun by the friends more as a means of throwing big parties for charity than for actually making money — the relationship with Guamas’ Mesa, which began as an amicable arrangement in which Bodacious Productions would rent the lot from Mesa on nights when there was live music at G-Street, began to deteriorate.

“We knew that Rubens had control of the parking lot and we had an arrangement with him,” Doré recalls. “But we got to a situation where we were barely making any money or losing money at the door, so we couldn’t afford to pay him $150 a night to leave the lot open. When that agreement ended, that’s when a lot of the trouble started, and that’s about the time I took over the whole venue.”

Doré’s Bodacious partners soon decided they’d had enough of the impresario business. Doré took over operations at the club for Smith, including booking the live music.

He says it got so bad with parking lot manager Mesa that on numerous occasions the lot was locked up while Grant Street customers’ vehicles were still parked in it. On some occasions, patrons cut the chain to get out, leading to further tension between lot manager and club manager. On at least one occasion law enforcement was called to diffuse the situation.

Maureen Brennan, executive director of Cité des Arts, says at one point Guamas’ owners approached her about getting in on the parking lot action. Brennan declined.

20110907-cover-0104
The parking lot at Grant Street Dancehall actually belongs to a nonprofit group that owns the nearby Evangeline Apartments. The adjacent spaces housing Cité des Arts and Guamas Restaurant are also part of the property.

“I’m doing well just to make payroll,” she laughs. “Coming up with an extra $2,000 or something to get in that — I don’t remember what it was; it’s been several years — just wasn’t in the ballpark.”

Brennan says when she signed the lease with original property manager HRI about 10 years ago, she was told that Cité patrons were entitled to use the parking lot next to Grant Street dancehall, but admits that she’s not “detail-oriented,” and after combing through the 150-page lease agreement she could find no reference to parking for Cité. In effect, Cité des Arts is in the same parking pickle as Grant Street Dancehall, with one notable exception: Cité patrons don’t mistakenly believe they’re being double charged. 

Perception versus reality

“It’s still a major issue for the venue; I know it has been in the past, but as much as I went through to get control of the lot, anything could happen at any time,” Doré says with resignation.

About a month ago the bar manager/booking agent and Grant Street owner Smith approached Nathan Thornton, a representative of the Lafayette Neighborhoods’ Economic Development Corporation — the lot owner — about either purchasing or leasing the lot from LNEDC. The tension with Guamas’ Mesa had been intense, and customers were still bitching about the parking. Something had to give.

They made an offer — Doré declines to say what that offer was — and Thornton told them he’d get back to them after the board reviewed the offer. According to Doré, Thornton contacted him a couple of weeks later and said the board had gotten a better offer  from former City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams and that Williams was the new lease holder for the parking lot. By this time, according to Mesa, Guamas’ lease on the lot was nearing its expiration date.

Doré wasn’t afforded the opportunity to make a counter offer, and he’s still hazy on how Williams learned about the lot’s availability. Thornton didn’t return multiple calls for comment and clarification on this point, but it’s worth noting a web of relationships in this story: Both Thornton and Williams work at UL Lafayette — the former in the Small Business Development Center, the latter in the Special Services Department; and Williams, as readers will recall, served as a federal Disaster Housing Assistance Program case manager from late 2007 to mid-2010 with the Lafayette Housing Authority. Joe Dennis, the board president for LNEDC, served on the LHA board at the time. It may be something. It may not. Neither Thornton nor Williams returned calls for this story, and Dennis simply says, “Oh, I don’t remember all the details,” when asked about the provenance of Williams’ lease agreement for the lot.

For his part, Doré says Williams has been a bonus for the parking lot. Williams cleaned the lot up, re-striped it and removed weeds, and the attendant the former councilman hired to collect parking fees has been professional and courteous.

Doré has begun supplying the parking attendant with coupons entitling Grant Street patrons to a free drink (up to a $4 value) in an effort to soothe their savage breasts. But he still deals with angry customers convinced he’s double billing them. And worse, bands — especially some big, local acts that would otherwise draw a robust crowd to the dance hall — have begun refusing to perform there.

“There are certain bands, without naming any names, that have just told me face-to-face, ‘We’re not going to book the place without the parking lot,’” Doré says. “It’s one of the first things the promoters ask. And certain bands say, ‘We just won’t play there. We won’t do our CD release party unless the parking lot is open.’ They would just rather do it somewhere else because they feel like their fans won’t come if their fans know they have to pay to park specifically in that lot.”

20110907-cover-0105
 The Evangeline Apartments on Jefferson Street

PARKING, AND RECREATION

Grant Street Dancehall does live music four nights per week: zydeco on Thursdays; a variety of touring and local acts on Fridays and Saturdays; and an open mic night on Mondays to which admission is free. (On occasional nights the club also hosts the “Micro Wrestling League,” which, as the name implies, is a decidedly un-PC form of entertainment involving diminutive, costumed humans.)

If you’re cool paying $5 for the convenience of parking right in front of the club, by all means do so. But there are plenty of parking options in downtown Lafayette, starting with about 20 free spots in the lighted parking lot across Second Street from the club next to the old Coburn’s building. And while there’s ample free parking on the streets downtown — parking meters don’t charge after 5 p.m. on weekdays and not at all on weekends — there are hundreds of spaces in the five-story Parc Auto du Centre Ville parking tower on Vermilion Street just three blocks away from Grant Street Dancehall.

To find out about upcoming performances at Grant Street, check out its website at GrantStDancehall.com, call 237-8513 or see The Grid weekly in The Independent or online at theind.com.

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