Council resolution buys time for Artmosphere

by Walter Pierce

But will city leaders figure out a way to tweak existing law and allow the popular live-music bistro to stay open?

The City-Parish Council will vote Tuesday on a resolution that would ask state office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control Commissioner Troy Hebert to postpone a sales audit of popular live music bistro Artmosphere. Because the business is classified by the state as a restaurant it’s required to earn more than 50 percent of its revenue from food sales — a benchmark the venue has generally never met as its raison d’être has always been nightly live music and the alcohol sales attendant to that. Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp has been threatened with loss of her license to sell alcohol — a coup de grâce for a business that relies on the typical South Louisiana alchemy of booze, music and happy people.

As the resolution makes clear, “the delay would allow for additional time to research the effect on downtown’s ability to have a vibrant, orderly nightlife that promotes the economic well-being of downtown, its businesses, and its residents.”

The Zoning Commission recently deferred voting on a request by Kemp that she be rezoned from Central Business District to General Business, which would allow her to apply for straight-up bar liquor license and not be subject to the state’s food-sales requirement. There was some opposition to that move among interests Downtown who worried that it would set a dangerous precedent. Yet virtually no one — save, possibly, for some other bar owners Downtown who see Artmosphere only through the lens of competition for customers — wants to see Artmosphere go out of business. It’s a popular bar that supports local music and has never had issues with unruly patrons.

Nathan Norris, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, says city leaders plan to seek a remedy that could possibly include amending the 2003 ordinance that placed a moratorium on new bars opening Downtown — a law that was implemented amid concerns about public safety and crowd control when

Artmosphere owner Berry Kemp
Photo by Robin May

bars proliferated along Jefferson Street in the early 2000s. But the moratorium, Norris and others concedes, also grants a monopoly on the bar business Downtown to a handful of property owners because bar licenses are tied to physical addresses and not to the businesses operating within them, and the moratorium stipulates that if a bar closes and alcohol isn’t sold from a physical address then the liquor license is permanently revoked — a condition that led the city to recently informing Plaza owner Shannon Wilkerson that he had to close in the building formerly occupied by Karma.

Norris says what is most likely to happen is to create a conditional-use classification that would allow Artmosphere to obtain a bar license without technically leaving the Downtown district via rezoning.

“It would change the existing [moratorium] ordinance,” Norris says. “What it would say is, rather than a bar being banned outright except for these grandfathered businesses, it would say if you meet these criteria then we can grant you that conditional use and if you maintain those criteria you get to keep it.”

Those criteria could range from a requirement that live music is offered to something as simple as being a good citizen Downtown in terms of patrons.

“It might not even be live music,” he says. “It might be that you’re not creating a nuisance, failing to manage your crowd, getting too big of a crowd or too rowdy of a crowd or loud of a crowd.”