Screwing the City’s Scene

Though over the past few years I’ve had some major frustrations about Atlanta, I’ve stuck it out and hoped for a renaissance. People are still flocking here because of its affordability, and that’s been the thing that’s kept me going the most – hope that all this new influx might breathe new life into the city.

A few months back, I was “railed” by a reader who found it particularly offensive that I care so much about Atlanta’s nightlife. Well, in my opinion, when politics are going the way they are, we’re at war, life in the U.S. is becoming increasingly more expensive, plants are closing or moving overseas, and the arts are suffering a lack of commitment and nurturing overall, sometimes I just want to be able to go out and have some fun with some cool people at a place with some vibe. Not everyone wants to go to Buckhead or Midtown, or spend 20 bucks to get into a place where all the chicks are wearing the same skimpy outfit and the guys all have the same striped button-up shirt.

But that’s been another problem – I end up at the same bar over and over again, because no matter which new or extant club or bar I visit, it just doesn’t feel right. So Alex and I thought, ‘Well, instead of bitching about it, let’s just open our own place.’ We have ideas for a place that would make people feel relaxed and at home, that wouldn’t be expensive, or a “meat market,” and would offer a variety of treats all under one roof. So we got started on our research, talked with consultants, found someone to help with the business plan, bla, bla, bla. But yesterday I finally got on the phone with someone who would give me the lowdown on what’s going on here, and why more new places aren’t opening.

I learned from someone in the real estate industry that the City Council has made sure that it’s damn near impossible to open a new night spot. They started by passing a law which prevents anyone from having a bar unless it’s also a restaurant. Now, it’s costly enough to get a bar started, but a restaurant is a monumental can of worms and everyone in the business knows that. They’ll tell you: Wanna keep it simple? Open a bar. Forget carrying the overhead cost of food service.

Oh well. Next, the City of Atlanta has made it so that if your bar isn’t built to exact specifications by certain professional builders, you won’t get your liquor license. There are also crazy strict zoning laws that were put into place, among other things on a laundry list of ways to make an entrepreneur’s dreams crumble to dust. The person I spoke to was very professional and very compassionate. He said that it sucks for him because his opportunities to close deals on business spaces have become limited, and that he was telling me all of this so I could properly prepare.

There has been talk around town that these things are being done in order to funnel people (and therefore revenue) into Atlanta Underground, which is purportedly owned by members and/or friends of the City Council. That sounds just a little corrupt to me. And I was wondering why it took somewhere around a year for Graveyard Tavern to open its doors. Could be rumors (I’ve never spoken to the owners), but I keep hearing that the city made it ridiculously hard for them to get everything approved.

Anyway, the kicker came at the end of the conversation when the person said to me, “I mean, do you want me to be blunt?”

“Uh, yes…please.” I said, “I’m tired of getting the runaround from consultants, lenders, and the SBA.”

“Okay,” he said, “here it is. It’ll cost about $300,000 to get a place built out and set up as a bar/restaurant – and that’s not including lease cost or liquor license, etc. AND, if you do get the money, landlords have a way of making it very difficult for you to get into their spaces. You have to be a pro. Basically, unless you have the backing of investors like the Buckhead Life Group, you’re kinda SOL.” I thanked him for his time and closed the door on my great idea right there. I mean, when I could just go somewhere else and open a place, why would I struggle against all this adversity here? So much for the renaissance…

13 Comments so far

  1. Jonathan Peterson (unregistered) on February 1st, 2006 @ 11:43 am

    There is a reason there is a big growth of nightlife outside the Atlanta city limits. At some point things will come around as the city realizes that sometimes folks don’t want to spend $5 for a beer and $10 for a burger and the tax revenues on entertainment start to drop.

    I’ve got friends who own restaurants and bar/restaurants in town and all of them are looking outside the city limits for any new locations.

  2. Aradia (unregistered) on February 1st, 2006 @ 11:49 am

    Yep…totally. We thought about that too, but unless we can prove to lenders that the foot traffic will bring in a certain amount of cash, we can’t get the funding (it’s always harder for 1st time business owners). But you’re right, all this crap is a VERY good reason to take businesses OTP. Sad but true.

  3. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on February 1st, 2006 @ 1:46 pm

    Part of looking outside the city is avoiding municipal hassles, but part of it’s just going where the people are.

    ITP-ers — take a trip to McDonough or Kennesaw on a Friday night. Check out the lines at the chain restaurants. Out the door.

    The city of Atlanta is home to just 10% of the metro area’s population. Plop a good bar/grill or a cool pizza place in one some of the suburban centers that are usually only served by chains and the potential is there to make a killing. Put a cool bar in East Atlanta or the Highlands and you’re only one of about 12 other similar places within 3 miles.

  4. Agent45 (unregistered) on February 1st, 2006 @ 6:11 pm

    People do get creative (and keep it legal). I’m almost scared to point out any specifics as I don’t want the city coming down on my favorite haunts these days but I find it so tiresome that I can travel the country to great watering holes like The Circle Bar in Nola, The Tainted Lady in Brooklyn and Delilah’s in Chicago (just to name three) and dream that a place like one of these could ever open up in Atlanta. And do you think I’ll EVER set foot in Underground Atlanta? Hell no!!! I want personality, individualism and creativity, not more chains!!!

  5. Cap'n Ken (unregistered) on February 1st, 2006 @ 7:19 pm

    Andisheh – you’re right that the restaurant market is bigger in the suburbs, but I think that’s a different issue (especially chain restaurants).

    As the metro area’s actual city, Atlanta’s nightlife (food and drink) is driven more by it being a destination the fine folks who make up 90% of the area’s population might want to visit once in a while. So we have more single-location and independent places that offer people more than their local Chili’s. Nobody in Kennesaw is driving to McDonough for a night out at Longhorn, but people from both places might come in to a Buckhead Life restaurant or some trendy place like Shout.

    And the city’s population in general probably eats and drinks out more often than suburbanites, so it’s a healthier market for neighborhood places as well.

    But that’s beside the point. The city does make it way too difficult to operate. We do need places like The Circle Bar (great reference, Agent45).

  6. fat asian baby (unregistered) on February 2nd, 2006 @ 2:13 pm

    damn. i’ve had this same conversation with people about opening up a venue, maybe on memorial. i never realized there was all the red tape but maybe that explains why nothing’s happening with the echo lounge.

  7. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on February 3rd, 2006 @ 11:49 am

    Fine, if you’re gonna demand that I be relevant and on-topic, here’s an interesting story from my pal (and yours!) CL’s Scott Henry.

    NEWS & VIEWS | BRIEF 11.18.04
    Nightclubs must provide parking


    Buckhead’s representatives on Atlanta City Council believe they’ve found a way to limit the proliferation of nightclubs around the city — and they’ve been so stealthy about their plan that it’s already law.

    At its Nov. 15 meeting, the council approved an unheralded ordinance by Council members Howard Shook and Clair Muller that will require new and existing nightclubs to provide proof that they have at least one dedicated parking space for every 75 square feet of floor space in order to renew their liquor license.

    Although the measure won’t take effect until January 2006, it’s likely to result in a scramble among nightclubs in Buckhead, Midtown and even downtown to lock in agreements with parking lot owners or risk losing their licenses. The new ordinance does not affect bars or restaurants.

    Shook concedes that the ordinance represents a “back-door approach” at reining in the number of nightclubs that have sprung up in Buckhead Village because of the area’s exemption from parking requirements under the city’s zoning laws. And, in other parts of the city, nightclubs that are supposed to have dedicated parking often have been found to be sharing the same spaces with several other clubs.

    “I fully expect we’ll get sued,” Shook says. “There’s too much at stake for us not to.”

    Muller is unwilling to predict how many clubs could be forced to close as a result of the new ordinance, but says she believes the move could spur the building of parking decks in Buckhead and could help shift the neighborhood’s emphasis toward retail and restaurants.


  8. mpc (unregistered) on February 4th, 2006 @ 9:21 pm

    What about East Atlanta? There seem to be a number of bars over there that do not have that kind of overhead, and are not “meat markets” or pretentious.
    Maybe you’re just hanging out in the wrong neighbourhoods.

  9. Aradia (unregistered) on February 6th, 2006 @ 9:06 am

    Actually, the only place I ever hang out is in East Atlanta. I love The EARL. But it’s a rock ‘n roll bar. I want an artspace with a mellower vibe – a place for drink and discussion, art shows and bands, DJs and philosophy…

  10. Greg Mohler (unregistered) on February 6th, 2006 @ 7:47 pm

    So like a cross between the Eyedrum and the Thinking Man’s Tavern?

  11. Aradia (unregistered) on February 7th, 2006 @ 9:48 am

    On the right track :-D But Eyedrum feels sterile to me. The stuff they do there is fantastic, but it lacks the warm and fuzzy feeling I’m seeking. I basically want it to feel like a comfy livingroom…but yes, I would like to foster a combination of what the aforementioned spots are providing.

  12. Lance (unregistered) on February 8th, 2006 @ 1:44 am

    I’ve been on the prowl myself for the type of cool place you mentioned. I had found it in Teaspace, a place I dearly loved but sadly it was forced out along with Accapella bookstore and recently replaced with the chain American Apparel, yippee :-( If you find anything or have suggestions please let me know before I give up and move back to Portland or Melbourne.

  13. Aradia (unregistered) on February 8th, 2006 @ 11:48 am

    Man, that sucks the big one. I loved Teaspace as well. Can’t believe what they replaced it with! I’ll post about anything cool that I find, but right now I’m looking into moving to Seattle…

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