My beloved Neat Cafe has been running into some problems lately with zoning bylaws and the township they reside in. To try and summarize, the Neat Cafe (www.neatfood.com ) is in Burnstown, Ontario in McNab-Braeside township in Renfrew County. That’s a mouthful It’s a fancy coffee shop that has taken over a building which was once the schoolhouse in the area, so it’s an older building with 2 rooms. Not terribly well insulated or serviced so they’ve had to keep working on the building adn site as the business grew. They began presenting shows in what was the schoolroom and through some sound decisions, hard work and community support, the venue has become a real landmark in the Canadian music scene. David Francey www.davidfrancey.com mentioned it as one of his favourite venues in a recent issue of Westjet magazine and many other performers have been through and love the venue for the atmosphere, the intimacy and the way they are treated by the owners and staff.
To accommodate the shows, the owners needed to expand the room, add another exit, expand the washroom and septic facilities; all while trying to keep the main business running. So after some thought and planning, they came up with some renovations. The plan was approved by the township and the renovations began. Once completed however, they required the work to be inspected and approved by the township. The inspector, a different person from the one who approved the plan, feels that the plans (and thus the work completed) are not up to code and that there are issues which need to be addressed. The Neat feels that they did work that had already been approved and are being bullied by the township. In the meantime, their liquor license has expired and it cannot be renewed until they receive the updated capacity numbers from the township, which they will not provide until the renovations are to the present standard.
Lawyers have been hired, there have been heated exchanges and in the meantime, the Neat is trying to run a business which involves putting on shows; many of which have already been contracted and deposits paid. So they need a resolution (and a liquor license).
Last week there was a town council meeting and the Neat asked its patrons to express their feelings to the township. This seemed to have a positive result; a private meeting between the parties led to a short term compromise and many views were aired at the council meeting. However, the story was also picked up by the Ottawa Citizen and initially it was focused on the area support for the venue, the follow up story laid some of the blame on the LCBO (Liquor License Board of Ontario) for not renewing the license. This was a story that the Neat did not want out their because it was false and put some blame on a party who all along had been supportive and communicative.
So where’s it at now? The Neat is still operating but their present liquor license is still at a far lower capacity that the actual number of people who can fit in the building so they have to have tight controls on who has a drink and where. They are still on the hook for many upcoming shows (including an Arrogant Worms show in December) and not having the right license affects their ability to break even on the shows, let alone turn a profit. Word is out amongst agents and some artists who are already wondering if they may lose a venue and should they book a show their in the future if it won’t happen. Though my personal feeling is that the township is in the wrong here, I’ll assume that the dispute is because people are trying to do their jobs in the best way possible; the township doesn’t want to have there be a fire at the Cafe on a full evening and find that people were injured or killed because they allowed too many people to in a building that didn’t have the right facilities.
But the last part is the media. I felt all along that the dispute needed to be aired; if nothing else to add some public pressure to the parties to resolve the issues. The cafe didn’t want to add to their problems by having the wrong message get out and have another issue to deal with. However, by not controlling the issue, the wrong story got out anyways. As my publicist friend Heather Kitching ( www.heatherkitching.com )said, “That’s why you have to take charge of the message.” It doesn’t mean they had to hire a full time publicity person to inundate area media with message; but if the Cafe had sent out some releases with their side of the story, had the owners been made available to talk to the media, the township might have been forced to respond sooner. Maybe we all would know why there is an issue there in the first place because it really seems that a few balls have been dropped along the way.
Like in Sunday’s TiCats, Alouettes game. Come on boys, catch the frikkin ball! Go TiCats! Oskee Wee Wee.