‘The devil’s in the details’: New venue opening causes confusion for community, city employees

City questions why Canopy advertises drink specials when owner doesn't have license to sell alcohol

MADISON, Wis. — The opening of a new venue in Madison is causing confusion for many community members and city employees.

Canopy, set to open in the former location of Prism Nightclub, posted on Facebook advertising its grand opening Saturday.

The announcement included drink specials and music, but the Alcohol License Review Committee said the owner, Austin Carl, does not have a license to sell alcohol.

City alder and member of the ALRC, Paul Skidmore, said that when he saw the advertisement, “We were somewhat surprised at that, as were a number of people. We are hoping that he knows he can’t serve alcohol. I have a feeling there will be individuals keeping an eye on that to make sure that he doesn’t.”

On Friday morning, Canopy posted to its Facebook page an update to the grand opening event:

News 3 Now was able to speak to Carl over the phone Friday afternoon to ask for clarification on the plans for Saturday’s event, but Carl said, “Simply put, I wanted to make myself available and my venue available to answer any questions and see the space.” Carl said he didn’t have time to answer any more questions and hung up.

Alder Mike Verveer said over the phone that he was also concerned, and questioned if Carl had the proper permits for a place of assembly from the fire department, food and drink license from the department of public health or a building permit to perform any type of construction plans that Carl said he was anticipating.

At an ALRC meeting held on Jan. 15, the committee questioned Carl’s plans for the venue for more than an hour. Skidmore said there were still too many uncertainties to grant Carl a liquor license.

“The devil’s in the details,” Skidmore said. “We deferred this for 30 days so he could come back and clarify exactly what he wants because there was some confusion in our mind if he wanted to be a nightclub or a bar. He was talking about being a cafe among other things. Having coffee and having a place to network, not just a place to get together and dance.”

Skidmore said Carl’s plans have changed numerous times since first presenting them to the city. Some of the original details included making it an 18+ club, making it a cafe and networking venue during the day and a nightclub at night.

However, the lease that Carl signed states “the permitted use for the premises is as a restaurant and bar.”

Carl was questioned about his intentions for the space and he responded, saying, “Nightclub is such a harsh word. The only reason why we adopted nightclub is when I went to go take a domain name, everything else was taken.”

Carl was questioned on this further by Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy.

Zilavy: “You’re proposing a nightclub operation?”
Carl: “I think that boils down to semantics.” 
Zilavy: “Well listening to everything you said, that’s exactly what you’re proposing to do.”
Carl: “Is to be just a nightclub?”
Zilavy: “To be a nightclub. Did you read this lease thoroughly before you signed it?”
Carl: “Yes and I also sent it to lawyers.”
Zilavy: “Seriously? And they advised you to sign this?”
Carl: “Yes. They said it was safe.”

During the meeting, Carl was also questioned about the uncertain hours of operation. Carl had gone back and forth about opening at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. and being open until bar time.

“To be honest, I am young, and this is my first business, but that doesn’t mean I lack certain key components to run a business,” Carl said. Carl mentioned that although he doesn’t know everything about running a business, he surrounds himself by people who have a lot of experience who can help him delegate how to run his venue efficiently.

But his lack of “structured discussion of actuals,” as one ALRC member stated, wasn’t enough for the city to feel confident enough to move forward.

“When he was talking, some of the details changed as the conversation went on,” Skidmore said. “We wanted to give him the opportunity to come back and present a more cohesive plan.”

Carl was also questioned about the lease he signed with the building owner, Chuck Chvala. The lease includes a clause stating, “Lessee shall not have or promote an hip hop or urban music special events without the prior written consent of the landlord.”

“I think urban is the word in question and by urban that is just tacked on to hip hop,” Carl said. “The landlord was worried we would have some instances that would scare away some of the community members, not scare away necessarily as make the community uncomfortable. This is something that is open to negotiation in our second lease. The landlord just wanted to provide us with as little trip ups as possible in the sense of if someone got hurt or if something awful happened, it wouldn’t tank the business.”

The clause struck a nerve with some community members who have posted articles online about how this clause is grounds for discrimination and dates back to racial stereotyping of black communities.

Skidmore said he has not heard that community members are concerned about what type of music is played, but has heard concern over the noise levels that come from the venue.

“I did not hear that members of the neighborhood didn’t want hip hop,” Skidmore said. “What I heard from the neighbors, was that there were a number of people there that were not happy with the fact that this would be another large venue within 80 feet of residences and some within 300 feet surrounding there that say it’s loud. They complain about the noise, they complain about the parking. There was a variety of complaints but I didn’t hear hip hop.”

Skidmore added that Madison has historically had issues arise from hip-hop venues that have experienced violent incidents, including shots fired. However, the issues from the community members who live near Canopy said they are mostly not in favor of using the venue for another nightclub.

“We did hear from the neighborhood. They’re not in favor of this,” Skidmore said. “They said, ‘They tried Plan B, they tried Prism. It was noisy, there were problems. Let’s not wait for third time’s the charm. Don’t approve this because of the noise, because of the parking, because of the alcohol.'”

The next ALRC meeting to discuss the potential of granting Carl a liquor license will be Feb. 15.