One man's vision of creating a vibrant alcohol-free hangout for teens and live performers hinges on approval of a new social hall definition by the Ogden City Council.
Last fall, Earnie McKown began renovating a large building he leases at 3155 Harrison Blvd., which formerly housed a Chuck E. Cheese pizza-party franchise and then sat vacant for several years.
McKown operates the Paris Cafe in the large structure that occupies part of the Harrison Plaza Shopping Center, an older strip mall bordering nearby neighborhoods. Under current zoning, McKown can operate as a "social hall" but is not allowed to host live entertainment.
Last September, McKown petitioned the city to amend their zoning ordinance and paid the required $220 fee.In early October, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 to deny his request, and a few weeks later the City Council unanimously concurred with that recommendation but left the door open to revisit the vague social hall definition.
Ron Atencio, owner of Mojos a thriving all-ages live music venue in downtown Ogden that opened in 2004 serves on the city's planning commission and was among the six voting against McKown's initial petition."I'm still having this conflict between myself and Commissioner Atencio for what I'm asking for," McKown said. "[Approval] would put us in direct competition."
Atencio, though, said that didn't influence his vote.
"[McKown] felt I had bias, which I don't," Atencio said.
"I think the market will judge what works and what doesn't," Atencio said, noting that "none of us are getting rich off it. I do it for the music and the kids."
In the weeks following the October denial, McKown said he worked to make the Paris Cafe viable without live performers.
"I tried having DJs, pool and specials instead," McKown said. "But the bills started piling up and I finally said 'I can't do this anymore.'"
In December, area bands approached McKown about performing at the Paris Cafe and he said yes. He enjoyed some lucrative nights until the city's code enforcement division caught wind of the activity and ordered him to stop.
"I was breaking the rules just to survive," McKown said. "Without the live music, I'm dead and I've told them that."
McKown assisted the city in drafting the new social hall definition, wording that cleared the Planning Commission in early January with a 4-2 vote. Atencio was not in attendance. On March 12, the City Council will consider the matter.
Atencio said he purposely recused himself from the January discussion since the Paris Cafe would be a direct competitor.
According to McKown, he kept within fire codes and appropriate noise levels and said there were no complaints from nearby residents about the live performances he hosted without the city's blessing.
"I was doing an open mic night and artists were coming in and doing their artwork," McKown said of the synergy that developed. "Within three weeks, my business doubled and I could start paying rent."
West Point resident Doyle Shelley has two sons, ages 16 and 19, who play in the heavy-metal band Subliminal Seven that packed the Paris Cafe one evening. Shelley praised the venue for its size and acoustics, saying McKown had done a lot of work to enhance its ability to host live performances.
Shelley said he suspects that a competitor informed the city of McKown's illegal band-booking after that well-attended show.
"The following Monday, Ogden City comes and shuts them down [for live music]," Shelley said.
For McKown, he said he's reached the point where he will have to close the Paris Cafe down if he cannot feature live entertainers. While he would find that personally devastating, McKown believes it would also remove a healthy outlet for teens.
"I'm providing a service," McKown said. "Kids transform when they get up for open mic night."
McKown said he scraped by for several weeks as he waited for the new language to reach the City Council for a vote. According to Ogden Management Services Director Mark Johnson, the social hall definition took time for city planners to review.
"Being in a strip mall and close to a neighborhood are the complicating factors," Johnson said of McKown's situation. "I know Earnie is anxious, but we want to make sure we do it right."
In a March 5 City Council work session, Planning Director Greg Montgomery defined social halls as privately owned, multifunctional businesses that have to open at least five days a week and close by 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Live entertainment would be allowed two of those days. The space also can be rented out for private events such as weddings and receptions, but attendees could not be charged admission. Alcohol could be served at private events if the organizers obtained special event licenses.
Twitter: @catmck Proposed social hall parameters
Size • Up to 2,400 square feet in C-1 (neighborhood commercial), 4,000 square feet in C-2 (community commercial) and C-3 (regional commercial)
Days of operation • At least five days per week of which two days can be devoted to live music and dancing that is open to the public
Hours of use • Between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday
Must be multifunctional in nature and can be rented out for private events
No alcohol unless a private party renting the facility obtains a special event license
No tickets can be sold to attendees of private events
Source: Ogden City