Truth Lounge owners get green light to operate nightclub with no stipulations

Published 9:54 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

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NATCHEZ — The city’s planning commission placed no restrictions on the operation of the Truth Lounge and approved continuing its special exception to do business in the city’s historic district.

The decision came after a public hearing my of the commission on Thursday.

On March 16, 2023, the planning commission approved a special exception for Rickey Banks and David Haywood to operate a nightclub at 719-1/2 Franklin St. in the city.

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However, complaints from residents in the area about loitering and bad behavior of people in the area outside the lounge, along with a fight on Oct. 14, 2023, inside the club and chaos outside and neighbors claims of excessive noise at all hours of the night, led to the mayor and aldermen to vote to close the lounge during a special-called meeting on that same day.

Lawsuits and other legal action ensued, filed by The Cochran Firm of Jackson on behalf of Banks and Haywood. On Oct. 19, 2023, Sixth District Circuit Court Judge Debra Blackwell signed off on a agreement between then-City Attorney Bryan Callaway and Banks and Haywood, which reopened the nightclub several days later, but included the stipulation it must close to new customers at 1 a.m.

On Nov. 21, 2023, attorneys for the Truth Lounge agreed to drop a lawsuit filed against the aldermen and other city officials, and in exchange the city agreed to not seek enforcement of its order closing the nightclub on Oct. 14. That meant the Truth Lounge could re-open with no conditions place on it.

A separate suit, filed against Mayor Dan Gibson individually and 15 as-yet-unnamed defendant continues to this date.

Cheryl Rinehart, chairman of the planning commission, said it was the duty of the commission to review the special exception in light of complaints from the city and citizens, particularly those who are residents in the area near Truth Lounge.

City Planner Frankie Legaux reported to the commission that since the judge’s order was lifted, one of the business owners near the bar said the noise level has improved and Natchez Police Chief Cal Green said only one incident has occurred, and that incident involved a suspected patron of the bar backing into a neighboring building.

“What does someone running into a building across the street have to do with the Truth Lounge?” asked Mildred Chapman, commission member.

Commission members had a copy of each police report of incidents that happened in the vicinity of the Truth Lounge since it re-opened opened.

Chapman pointed out that of all the complaints filed against the Truth Lounge, only one — the fight on Oct. 14, 2023 — happened inside the lounge.

“Everything else happened outside,” she said.

“The concern was the fact that (on Oct. 13) there was lack of control on the street. People could not even drive on the street,” Rinehart said. “So there was a concern for us to consider because the city closed them down and because of the danger to residents and businesses in the area. We are reviewing this because we gave a special exception and then there were all these problems that were not there before it opened. That’s why we are review it.”

Emma Rose Jackson said the 700 block of Franklin Street has always been home to several nightclubs.

“Since I was a child it has always been a Black area where they had their bars. The Savoy Grill and all of those have been right there. So, are we calling them responsible for traffic, or did they not have security?” she asked.

In fact, owners Haywood and Banks said they had employed five off-duty Adams County Sheriff’s deputies at the nightclub on the evening of the incident.

Member Butch Johnson said bars in the historic district cannot operate without a special exception from the planning commission.

“What we are dealing with here is we granted this special exception. Yes, there is a bar next to them (Bobby J’s) and there are bars on Main Street, but they are all required to have special exceptions. You can’t operate without one. We have turned down bars on Main Street because of concern about what might happen on the streets outside of them,” Johnson said.

He said the special exception granted to Truth Lounge is the only one that has been granted since he has been on the planning commission.

Member Jonathan Smith said while incidents on the streets have seemed to have mostly gone away since the lounge reopened, the noise issue remains.

Members asked City Attorney Jack Lazarus what their choice were in the case of the Truth Lounge.

“You have two options. Either revoke the special exception or vote to extend the special exception,” he said.

Smith asked if stipulations could be placed on continued operations of the business. Lazarus said the commission could do that.

Member Marsha McCullough asked if the commission could extend the special exception, but revisit that decision later if problems arise again. Rinehart said the special exception could be reviewed at any time if one granted to any business did not conform to the agreement of operation.

Richard Branyan, owner of several properties in the 700 block of Franklin Street, including Lower Lodge Antiques and a workshop where he restores antique and other furniture, as well as his private residents and at least three rental properties, praised Banks and Haywood for work they have done to alleviate problems, but said serious noise issues remain. He presented a notice of objection to the planning commission about the continued granting of a special exception for Truth Lounge.

“I talk to Rickey and David a lot and I think they are trying. They open at midnight and they go until sometimes 5 a.m.,” Branyan said. “I have people renting from me who are working in Natchez and if you are getting up at 7 a.m. and the bar closes at 5? My bedroom is 150 feet from the Truth Lounge and I have 36 inches of solid brick in between and I get routinely woken up at 3 in the morning when the Truth Lounge people are leaving.”

Branyan said his life has been threatened by people when trying to get them to not park in his private parking lot.

Commission member Dan Hays-Clark asked if the problem of people parking in his lot would be alleviated by some form or gate or fence. Branyan said yes, but that would cost him “tens of thousands of dollars.”

Banks and Haywood said they do not open at midnight, that they open between 6 and 7 p.m. However, sometimes midnight is when crowds arrive, and that they are businessmen and cater to customers when they come. They said their closing time is fluid, based on when customers leave.

It was pointed out by attorney Lazarus that the area in which Truth Lounge operates is classified as one of two resort areas in the state and the city cannot impose closing times on businesses in it.

Attorney Jeffrey Graves, representing Banks and Haywood, said the issue is Branyan is operating short-term rentals in an entertainment district.

Member Smith asked if any stipulation could be placed on noise coming from Truth Lounge. Planner Legaux said the city had passed a noise ordinance and would soon be getting the devices needed to measure noise in decibels.

After about an hour of polite discussion, Johnson made a motion to revoke the special exception for the Truth Lounge, but it died for lack of a second.

Chapman made a motion to extend the Truth Lounge special exception to operate with no stipulations. Jackson seconded the motion. The commission voted 7 to 2 to continue the special exception. Johnson voted nay and member Deborah Martin abstained. Members Marsha McCullough, Mildred Chapman, Dan Hays-Clark, Cheryl Rinehart, Emma Rose Jackson Charles Harris and Jonathan Smith voted yay.