Around Town

The Plaza takes over old Karma spot on Jefferson Street

by Christiaan Mader

Longtime nightclub entrepreneur Shannon Wilkerson gets back into the mega-bar business.

Standing outside the doors of The Plaza’s Downtown reboot, the glitz of the new sign, the geometric glamor of black squares and repeating gold flora say all you need to know about what’s within: this is a mega-club reborn. Indeed, the 1,400 capacity room has been operating with a month-long soft opening that’s seen sizeable crowds scaling the catwalk balconies and dance platforms, and filling in VIP tables on a Saturday-only basis. Taking over for an impossibly short-lived pilot club called Icon, the fully re-imagined Plaza marks the second operation to host bangers and DJ-driven club nights in the enormous-for-Lafayette facility at 314 Jefferson St. that once housed Karma Nightclub & Lounge. With a more aggressive marketing campaign in the wait for July, operator Shannon Wilkerson looks to get back into the thick of the big-club business.

Shannon Wilkerson
Photo by Robin May

When Icon shuttered after a single Festival International weekend, the facility lay dormant under the lease of the California investment group that opened the short-lived club. Icon’s honey failed to attract any bees during Downtown’s biggest swarm, so representatives of Adam David III Partnership LLC, the legal entity that operated Icon, reached out to Wilkerson to get more experienced boots on the ground. Given its two-storied resemblance to Wilkerson’s original Plaza night club on Johnston Street, a re-brand to the old name was an obvious choice. With a 10-day renovation and turnaround complete, The Plaza opened for business June 20 with well over 500 in attendance despite little effort to advertise.

“I wanted to open the club as soon as it was ready. Even if it meant just opening the doors, which is what we did. And we did fairly well, all things considered. So we’re gonna start a more aggressive marketing campaign in July,” says Wilkerson.

Since his first Plaza on Johnston Street closed five years ago, Wilkerson has longed for the big lights and high-energy problem solving that make nightclub ownership not for the faint of heart. When things go well, you have a sold-out night complete with quaking bass drops, a horde of humanity near 1,400 deep and a dance floor electrified by the boundless energy of the under-25 demo. On a bad night, you’ve got an empty room with a large and unoccupied crew or, worse, that same pulsing crowd with a fight in the tide. With only a small window of hours available to capitalize on a late-starting crowd, Wilkerson relishes the challenge to keep things running smooth so he and his partners can stay profitable. That means proper security, and proper floor management.

“One fight you lose the whole night,” Wilkerson says.

Wilkerson is not naive about the logistical issues that come with the flood of partiers hitting Jefferson Street after last call. But he notes that regardless of the size of your business, at the end of the day you’re counting on people to behave themselves. Wilkerson has been active on this point in the past, coming to Karma’s defense in its City-Parish Council appeal of a suspended liquor license due to Karma’s accumulated public nuisance points. The public nuisance ordinance that would ultimately spell the end of Karma, he argued, set an unfair precedent for a burden of responsibility on club owners for the unpredictable nature of their patronage. At the time, none of Wilkerson’s clubs had accrued any such points.

To the extent that human behavior can be controlled, Wilkerson speaks confidently of the problem-solving ability afforded him by his 30-plus years in bar and club operation via establishments like The Bulldog Sports and Imports and Poets, both on General Mouton Road, to say nothing of the original Plaza that operated successfully for 15 years as a hot spot for clubbers and nightlife thrill seekers. (In early 2014, Poets unsuccessfully tried to make a comeback at a Downtown location but never got off the ground due to a lease dispute, according to Wilkerson.)

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I certainly don’t look for any grief. I try to avoid grief at all costs. But that big of a crowd definitely has an impact on the area. It’s not like when I was at the original Plaza and I’d do a show and have 1,200 people in there. Well, when they’d leave they’d get in their cars and go home. On Jefferson Street, when they leave the club they go out on Jefferson Street. And all these other people are coming out of other clubs on Jefferson Street. The potential issues are clear just with crowd control,” Wilkerson says.

“Having said that, I still miss putting on those big shows. I still want to do those shows,” he continues. “It’s a task, and about every other one I’d swear I didn’t want to do it again.”

He’s not defiant or defensive discussing the obvious challenges involved in club ownership, touchy as something like that can be given the legacy Karma left in the building he took over. Head-shaved, muscle-bound, calm, and bespectacled, Wilkerson seems responsibly optimistic about the challenge of operating a large club on a historic main street. He recalls a pair of eerily similar balcony dives by addled patrons, separated by years in Plaza the Older’s history, that resulted in ambulance rides for the jumpers and dark clouds over neon festivities.

“I can tell you dozens of stories. Some people are just crazy, and some people just won’t behave. What are you going to do prevent that? You can have security and have a very safe environment. Some people just aren’t normal,” he says.

Still he’s undeterred in his belief that he can turn The Plaza 2.0 into a Jefferson Street update, complete with diverse programming for Lafayette’s nightlife. Wilkerson’s near-term marketing strategy is to focus on creating stellar Saturday night programming. He keeps the covers low at $5 for the ladies and $10 for the fellas, a gender-weighted ticket strategy that gets the girls in the doors and guys chasing after them. Long term, he hopes to expand The Plaza’s repertoire with the kind of diverse programming that he presented at the Johnston street location. While the mega-club format has generally been dominated by house music, EDM and DJ mash-up nights, Wilkerson’s promotion résumé includes hosting performances by Cheap Trick, Prince and 2 Live Crew at the Plaza Johnston Street, a national touring element long missing from Lafayette’s Downtown scene since the demise of Grant Street Dance Hall. Other concepts like DJ battles and Latin nights will further expand the club’s outreach to attract newer markets Downtown.

Acknowledging the unique problems given the legacy of clubs previously in that location and clubs previous in his life, he doesn’t shy away at the chance to operate the big lights again.

“It’s true that there were some problems with that club [Karma] with the prior owners. But the club business is just very different now. The bar business is very different. It’s unfortunate, but there’s potential for problems like that all over the place now. I don’t have any anxiety about it. I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve done a lot of clubs. I’ve done very well with many of them. I’ve done very poorly with many of them. I go in there and rely on my experience and train good people. I was certainly not going to pass up the opportunity to be involved in a beautiful club,” he says.

The Plaza is sure to make an impact on Downtown. Only time will tell how.