Artmosphere wants out

by Walter Pierce

The popular live music venue seeks to exit Downtown Lafayette. In a manner of speaking.

Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp has submitted a request to rezone the property her popular live-music venue/bistro sits on at the corner of Johnston and Convent streets from Central Business District to General Business. Artmosphere is located at the literal edge of the CBD where a moratorium was passed by the council about a decade ago forbidding the issuance of any new bar licenses. Artmosphere is currently licensed as a restaurant and state liquor licensing law requires that more than 50 percent of its sales be of food.

Kemp says that’s been an impossible target to hit because while Artmosphere revamped its menu and made a major push to increase its lunch traffic, the business at its heart is a live music venue that thrives after the sun goes down.

Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp
Photo by Robin May

“We keep trying,” Kemp tells The IND, exasperation clear in her voice. “Potentially I could shut down every night and wait for my numbers to recover, but that would take forever.”

And Artmosphere doesn’t have forever: It must submit its receipts to the state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control in October. Kemp says she will probably ask for an extension, adding that ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert, with whom she’s dealt often over the last 18 months, is sympathetic to her situation and wants to help Artmosphere stay in business. The same goes for Nathan Norris, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.

“Artmosphere is a cultural asset,” Norris says, acknowledging nonetheless that the boards of DDA and Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, which is the event arm of DDA — DLU organizes Downtown Alive!, Second Saturday ArtWalk, Movies it the Parc, etc. — share “a great concern that [granting Artmosphere’s rezoning request] sets a horrible precedent.”

“We’re exploring how we can put the right tools in place to help Artmosphere,” Norris adds.

Kemp says the Zoning Commission staff supports her request, but the staff’s recommendation must go through the commission, which will consider Kemp’s request on Monday, Aug. 17 during a public meeting. Regardless whether the Zoning Commission accepts the staff recommendation to grant Kemp’s request, the request will still go before the City-Parish Council on Tuesday, Sept. 15 during its regular meeting. Councilman Brandon Shelvin, who represents Downtown Lafayette, has, according to Kemp, been working hard to grease the skids for Kemp’s request ahead of that September meeting.
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Artmosphere (red dot) is at the literal edge of the Central Business District.

But even if the council signs off on Kemp’s request and effectively redraws the boundary of the Central Business District, carving out a niche for Artmosphere, Kemp still has hurdles to clear. To free the venue from the state licensing requirement covering food sales Kemp will need to obtain a bar license from the city of Lafayette and much will depend on how the city determines her distance from the Episcopal church and school nearby. City ordinance requires a bar to be at least 150 feet away from a church and 300 feet away from a school, and the means by which those distances are measured are open to interpretation, according to Kemp.

When Kemp opened Artmosphere 13 years ago she was told she was too close to the church/school to open a bar and was encouraged to seek a restaurant license, which allows for the sale of liquor but carries the 50%+ requirement. Shortly after getting her restaurant license the council passed the moratorium, so as Artmosphere established itself as a go-to live-music venue and its alcohol sales began regularly exceeding its food sales, Kemp couldn’t switch licenses and become, officially, a bar even if she wanted to.

“It’s just exhausting,” Kemp says of the ringer she’s been through with the state and city for the last year and a half. “It’s stressful for my management, it’s stressful for employees and it’s stressful for me.”