Residents debate potential downtown bar

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 27, 2009

NATCHEZ — Two hours of heated discussion a Thursday’s Natchez Planning Commission meeting were devoted to a potential downtown bar.

A bed and breakfast development is near completion at 600 Franklin St., and the owner, Edward Blackmon, appeared before the commission to ask for a special exception to have a public bar in the basement.

The 14-unit development was approved in 2007, but commission chair Deborah Martin said no plans for a bar were discussed at the time.

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Blackmon also mentioned a public restaurant would be included in the development as well.

Again, Martin said this was not brought up in 2007.

A flurry of concerns was by the board and residents voiced at the prospect of having two public amenities , as well as it being a bed and breakfast.

One of the board’s biggest worries revolved around a lack of parking in the area of the development — Franklin and Union streets.

Per ordinance requirements, a bed and breakfast must have one parking space per unit and additional spaces for staff.

Blackmon said when the project was first approved in 2007, former City Planner Dennis Story said the city would lease the parking lot next to the Marketplace Café.

The city could do this because it’s city-leased property.

However, the lease on the Marketplace property will end in October, and the land is owned by St. Mary Basilica Church.

However, church officials at the meeting weren’t so worried about parking as they were about the prospect of a bar.

Danny O’Beirne, attorney for the church, said state law mandates there be no bars within 400 feet of a church.

And plans are to take the existing Marketplace property and develop it for “church educational purposes,” O’Beirne said.

He said children will be in close proximity, and the bar would present a temptation.

“A bar is going to be an attraction to children whether it’s legal or not,” O’Beirne said.

Resident Eva Dunkley said Breaud’s — a restaurant on Main Street — is within 400 feet of the church and serves alcohol.

“There are no double standards,” Dunkley said. “Some questions are asked to some people, and when it comes to other people, the questions aren’t asked.”

Business owner Linda Wilbourn said she has a building on Franklin Street, and she doesn’t want to see another bar in the area.

“I was astonished at what Franklin Street is like at night,” she said, listing reckless driving, littering and yelling.

“All of this noise and commotion has to do with alcohol.”

Blackmon assured her and the planning commission that his plans were for a piano bar — something upscale and quiet.

He said it would be foolish to have a loud raucous bar in the basement of a bed and breakfast, as it would disturb his guests.

All of a sudden, Martin asked what the planning commission was going to approve.

The original application was just for the bar, but Martin said approval of a public restaurant would have to be in the works, too.

She said his bed and breakfast sounded a lot more like a hotel.

In that case, she said, he would not have to ask for permission for a restaurant, but still would with the bar.

Blackmon said he would be willing to change over to a hotel.

At that point, the planning commission formed a huddle to come up with an appropriate motion to handle Blackmon’s request.

A motion was made to accept the development as a hotel, rather than a bed and breakfast.

The motion passed, along with another another motion to make a special exception for the bar, pending an opinion on whether it’s legal to have a bar that close to a church.

Blackmon said he had already acquired his liquor license and the ABC board would have already looked into the proximity to the church.

The motion also added that the bar would only be open from 5 to 11 p.m. on weekdays, 5 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays and noon until 11 p.m. on Sundays.

Blackmon can appear before the board in six months time for a review.

Still, several downtown business owners present at the meeting wanted to protest the parking issues.

“The parking problem is something we’re trying to address continuously,” Blackmon said.