Nightclub status denied for daycare facility

Published 11:30 am Friday, September 5, 2014

Plans to turn the former The Tree House Café into an entertainment venue are going before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Meeting Tuesday as the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Vicksburg Planning Commission voted 4-1 to deny a special exception for nightclub status sought by Ashley and Eric Lawson, who are leasing the building from a Utah-based property management company and operate a daycare center, Planet 4 Kidz, on the property. About 20 people attended the meeting to oppose the request.

Ashley Lawson said Wednesday the couple had already filed their appeal to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

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“I hope we can come to an agreement on the appeal,” she said.

The building at 1837-B Cherry Street is north of the Cherry Street bridge and adjacent to the recently opened Carr Central Apartments and across the street from Frank J. Fisher Funeral Home. It is in a C-4 commercial zone.

Zoning assistant Paula Wright said the Lawsons have a privilege license to operate a banquet hall in the multistory restaurant building, which allows them to use the building to host events like reunions and wedding receptions, but Eric Lawson said the couple wants to be able to have concerts and other entertainment events at the building.

Because they want to charge admission for those events, he said they had to seek the nightclub exception. City Attorney Nancy Thomas said there was no other exception the Lawsons could seek under the city’s zoning regulations to do what they want to do.

“We’re not going to use it as a night club,” Eric Lawson said. “We’re not even applying for a liquor license. We don’t want to be associated with a nightclub. That’s not what I want.”

Lawson said the couple wants to hold events like jazz concerts, magic shows for children and other programs like poetry readings. During events, he said, the building would be open until 2 a.m., which is the closing time for nightclubs under city ordinance. He said no events would be held while the daycare center is operating.

But people attending the meeting said they were concerned over what granting the property nightclub status could mean in the future.

“I don’t trust it. If the property is sold, it could be a nightclub,” said First Baptist Church pastor Dr. Matt Buckles, who represented a group of opponents from the church. “It could be a problem. I can’t see something labeled a nightclub as a good thing for this community and the church. We just don’t trust nightclub status. It opens the door for all types of problems.”

People also raised concerns about loud music and the effect the activities might have on the residents of the Carr Central Apartment complex, which has multistory units behind the Carr Central building.

“I’m not sure what might happen (if the building became a night club),” said Ramona Latham, representing The House of Peace Worship Church International, which is south of The Tree House across the Kansas City Southern Railroad tracks. Latham said she was at the church one night during a reception at The Tree House, adding the music from the event was very loud.

“I was surprised it was coming from inside the building, it sounded like it was outside,” she said.

Lawson said they try to get people to keep the music levels down.

Thomas Hill, a member of First Baptist Church, said he sympathized with the Lawsons, but said the board was setting a trap if it approved nightclub status.

“There’s enough loopholes (in the zoning ordinance) that we can’t depend on what’s going to be there,” he said.

“We brought a dead property back to life and we want to find a way to best utilize it,” Eric Lawson said. “We’re just trying to maximize the property and bring something nice to the city.”

Built in 1980, the building that houses The Tree House was initially the home of Bluff Janitor Supply and Paper. The business closed after 2000. The Tree House Café opened in the building in 2005 and closed in June 2006. Another dining and entertainment venue, Eli’s Tree House, operated there in 2009-10. The building remained vacant until the Lawsons moved their Planet 4 Kidz daycare center to the site in January.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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