Andy Monceaux possesses a precious thing and he’s working fast to keep it. The longtime owner of Marley’s bar on Jefferson Street, Monceaux is also the majority owner of the building at 314 Jefferson catty-corner to Marley’s. It’s a grand old building in the “they don’t make ’em like they used to” mold — solid as granite with a two-story-tall interior skirted by a wide balcony. It was for most of its life Lee’s Furniture Store before a several-year run as Karma Nightclub & Lounge, which famously went out of business in a miasma of marijuana smoke and throbbing hip-hop at the beginning of the year after a much-publicized attempt by the Downtown gentry in 2013 to shutter it.
Monceaux had nothing to do with Marley’s, but his ownership of the building is where that precious thing — a bar liquor license — comes in. The license to sell booze as a bar, as opposed to a restaurant, is tied to the physical address of the building, and under the terms of a moratorium on issuing such licenses in Lafayette’s Central Business District, Monceaux has one year from the date of Karma’s closure to get a new bar up and running at 314 Jefferson. If he can’t, the bar license expires and cannot be renewed; there will simply be one fewer bar license Downtown where there are only about 20 such licenses. They really are precious things.
The moratorium on new Downtown bar licenses was a sensible if not over-broad response to an unintended consequence: When the city embarked on revitalizing Downtown beginning with the StreetScape project in the mid-to-late 1990s, few foresaw the rapid proliferation of bars along Jefferson Street and the public-safety issues that attend thousands of alcohol-fueled young people looking for a party in a confined area. We wanted art galleries, boutiques and restaurants but we got a lot of bars. The police had to create a special security detail for Downtown on weekends, and the council ultimately decided that a moratorium on new bar licenses was necessary. No more bars — we have enough already.
And that’s a problem for Berry Kemp, the owner of Artmosphere at the corner of Johnston and Convent streets. It’s a good pace away from Monceaux and Jefferson Street, but in the CBD all the same.
Artmosphere opened just a few months before the moratorium was issued, but because of its proximity to Ascension Episcopal Church and the prospect of a protracted fight with the Episcopalians over opening as a bar — city ordinance prohibits a bar from opening within 300 feet of a church and Artmosphere is right at the edge of that — Kemp opened Artmosphere as a restaurant.
A bar can earn 100 percent of its revenue on liquor sales, but a restaurant must earn 51 percent of its revenue on food. For the first several years of Artmosphere’s life, when it was more or less a bistro slash art gallery that had nightly acoustic music in a corner, that was fine. It was a restaurant.
But over the last several years, especially after Kemp renovated the former residential property and added an indoor stage with a good public address system and began booking full-on bands — mostly rock and roots, many local but also popular regional acts — Artmosphere has morphed into a bar insofar as its revenue tilted sharply toward the sale of alcohol and away from food.
Artmosphere was audited by the state, and last month Kemp was given an ultimatum: Get your food sales back up to the 51 percent level within three months or lose your license to sell alcohol, which would probably deliver a fatal blow to Artmosphere as a popular live-music venue. Who’s going to sit and listen to a band for two hours and not knock back some beers?
Kemp is in a tight spot. The simple thing to do would be to become licensed as a bar, but that’s impossible because of the moratorium. A very likely result is that a venue best known for giving young bands a stage — a venue that has never had to have police respond to a fight or other typical “bar” issues — will cease to exist.
And with due respect to Monceaux, whom I’ve met and believe is a straight shooter and an honest operator, whatever becomes of the former Karma space, it will likely be just another bar dispatching drunk people into the swirl of Jefferson Street on Saturday nights.
Eat lunch at Artmosphere today. Kemp serves a killer quesadilla.