Sentiment at Truth Lounge public hearing overwhelmingly supports reopening business

Published 10:19 pm Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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NATCHEZ — The overwhelming majority of those who attended the special meeting of the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen Tuesday night and its public hearing on the Truth Lounge’s appeal of the revocation of its special exception to operate were there to support Truth Lounge.

Owners Rickey Banks and David Haywood and their attorney, Jeffrey Graves of The Cochran Law Firm in the Jackson area, appealed to the board of aldermen a ruling by the planning commission in April to revoke the special exception that allowed the Truth Lounge to operate. It has been closed since.

The planning commission, by unanimous vote, granted Banks and Haywood a special exception to open Truth Lounge at 719-½ Franklin St. on March 16, 2023.

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Truth Lounge and its owners have been under scrutiny from the city and county law enforcement and city officials almost since it opened.

At a special meeting in October 2023, the mayor and three aldermen voted to close the lounge after a fight inside it took law officers 20 minutes to quell. Sixth Circuit District Judge Debra Blackwell then signed off on an agreement between the city and Truth Lounge attorneys that paved the way for it to reopen but with restricted hours.  

Since that time, the city and Truth Lounge attorneys came to an agreement that allowed it to reopen with no restrictions, as long as it agreed to provide security in its building and to keep the sidewalk clear in front of the building at 719-1/2 Franklin St. As a result, Truth Lounge owners dropped a lawsuit it had filed against the city. However, the lounge’s attorneys said a lawsuit filed by Truth Lounge against Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson and 15 as-yet-unnamed defendants is still active. 

Nightclub neighbor Richard Branyan has said the excessive noise generated by the club has cost him thousands of dollars in lost revenue at his short-term rentals.

On April 25, the Natchez Planning Commission members voted 4-3 to revoke the special exemption permit after more than an hour of discussion and 20 minutes of public comment. The review came after a shooting on Easter Sunday near Truth Lounge.

Video captured on a security camera across the street from Truth Lounge shows a crowd of people arguing outside the business. Then, gunshots can be heard on the video, which shows the crowd running from the scene.

Ten citizens chose to speak at Tuesday’s public hearing. Nine were appealing to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen to reverse the planning commission’s revocation of the special exception to operate.

Lee Ford, a former Natchez police officer, said, “Blame the quality of law enforcement, not Truth Lounge … Let’s be fair; these people are guilty of nothing other than trying to be good business people.”

W.C. Curtis, who retired to Natchez from the Chicago area and who owns Club Paradise in Natchez, said Banks and Haywood are “upstanding guys and good businessmen … I respectfully ask the board to give them another chance. Fix the things that are broken and work from there.”

Jack Blaney of Natchez said he requested 911 call reports on four different Natchez businesses. Blaney said between April 1, 2023, and March 31, 2024, 911 received 73 calls about incidents at Walmart; 29 calls at Merit Health Hospital; 26 calls at Magnolia Bluffs Casino; and five about Truth Lounge.

“But Truth Lounge is the only business that has been shut down,” Blaney said. “I agree with Mr. Ford. Once you leave the sidewalk, which is part of the agreement for Truth Lounge, that’s not on Truth Lounge. I think this whole thing has been blown out of proportion or a hidden agenda.”

Natchez businesswoman Jarita Frazier-King suggested that downtown business owners meet with Natchez Police Department officials to develop a comprehensive plan of expectations for both sides.

Joseph Smith, who founded and operates, suggested the board help establish a healthy nightlife coalition. He said providing entertainment for young people is part of what Banks and Haywood are doing at Truth Lounge. He said some people lack “home training. I think that’s a responsibility for us as a community. They can’t be held responsible for the actions of other adults outside their business. We have 30 colleges and universities within 100 miles of Natchez. But we have to have a strong plan. We must meet regularly and decide what to do as a community.”

Smith has led the way in working to beautify the area near the MLK Triangle, also known as the city’s Black business district.

“I have been down in the triangle working to revive it and I have seen the weaponizing of the law enforcement community against the businesses in the triangle. It doesn’t matter what we are doing; someone calls the police,” Smith said. “This entire community is ready for progress and this board tonight has the opportunity to vote to progress.”

Branyan, who owns Lower Lodge Antiques and three short-term rental properties and lives across from Truth Lounge on Franklin Street, said when Truth Lounge is open, “there are problems.”

He said he had lost business at his rental properties because of the excessive noise coming from Truth Lounge, had its customers park in his private parking spaces, and left his parking lot in poor condition.

“It’s been a problem. I support the bar scene, but it’s just a problem,” Branyan said.

Attorney Jeffrey Graves of The Cochran Firm in the Jackson area appealed to the aldermen on behalf of Truth Lounge.

Graves said the planning commission unanimously approved the special exception for Truth Lounge.

“I hope you all consider your role as a review board for the planning commission. These guys have done everything by your ordinances, but somehow not received fair process under the issues raised by the ordinances,” Graves said.

However, after the public hearing, aldermen voted three to two to deny a motion to reverse the planning commission hearing. Ward 5 Alderman Ben Davis did not attend Tuesday’s meeting because he was out of town, said Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson.