Brickfest 2017 is officially less than a week away and we’re as ready as anybody to get the party started. Our yearly festival is all about celebrating local music and the community that it fosters. Every music scene needs great venues in order truly flourish. Which is why we wanted to shine some light on a fantastic midwest venue, who’s fate currently hangs in the balance.
Since 1991, The Warehouse in downtown LaCrosse, WI has been a beloved stop for local and touring acts alike. They’re a nonprofit venue, aggressive in their mission to provide a safe, alcohol-free space for all ages to gather, perform, and grow. For over 20 years, the team of volunteers operating the venue known as the Warehouse Alliance have kept to their mission statement and The Warehouse is now a long time beloved establishment for performers and fans of all walks of life.
As many involved with local music know, keeping the lights isn’t always an easy task, especially without the added financial benefit of selling alcohol. The Warehouse has been no exception to this and in the past few years have sought out help from local and corporate donations, as well as crowdfunding, to help keep the business afloat. However, in an update to the venue’s GoFundMe page yesterday, executive director Stephen Harm stated that, following a financial dispute with the city of LaCrosse, the venue is currently without the proper licenses to hold live music and the fate of The Warehouse is uncertain.
“A letter arrived on May 21 from the City Clerk’s office.
That letter explained that this year the City of La Crosse was going to enforce a law on the books that had been used randomly in the past.
It stated, condensed, that if you owed the City of La Crosse any debt from this license year, that debt needed to be paid off prior to the renewal of your licenses, or you would not receive those licenses.
The letter went out to all people applying for “Combination Class B Beer & Liquor License” and Cabaret License (the license to allow live music and dancing) applicants, although the generalization of the unsigned by anyone, mechanically-generated letter made it look as if we were applying for a liquor license.
Quite a strange way to keep track of Cabaret licensing, to just generalize it into another category. Much like the decision on whether one year or the next would be a year that the law was applied, it just seemed curiously unorganized.
Included in the letter was the information that there was a real estate tax delinquency for 2016 on the “parcel” — the Warehouse building. That number was specifically referenced, and exclusively described.
The letter continued, describing the ordinances involved, and followed with “Questions about your current tax liability can be answered by contacting the City Treasurer’s Office…”, also that “Questions about your license renewal should be directed to the City Clerk’s Office.”
So when I went in to pay a first payment towards that 7212.48 tax debt, I took the letter from the City Clerk’s office with me. When I paid that first payment, the parcel number was on the check, and I showed the letter and parcel number to the City Treasurer to verify debt for that parcel was what was owed. I did not want to be caught off guard.
I was told that the amount owed was based on “whatever the City Clerk wrote in that letter” (direct quote), although I was advised that if I had parking tickets or water department bills, I should get those paid because they too would stop the Cabaret License from being granted.
I followed the first payment on the parcel with payoff of the water bills and the personal property tax (a weird business tax that taxes the items you have inside your business).
Between then and now, another payment on the big parcel bill followed.
Then came Friday.
Friday was the date all debt to the City needed to be paid. So any of you who follow our Facebook know that we were tirelessly trying to raise that remaining $6000+ through any means possible by 5pm.
At 4:30 I took everything we had to our credit union, got a bank check for $5000 (everything we had), and one of the Warehouse Alliance Board members loaned us the remaining amount in cash at 4:50pm.
It was later discovered that I rushed out of the Warehouse building at such a pace that I left the front door unlocked.
We triumphantly raced into City Hall, took the money to the City Treasurer, and paid that parcel tax debt.
What a great feeling.
We had freed up the Cabaret License.
All that was left was to take that receipt over to the City Clerk to show we had paid what they instructed us to pay per the letter from May 21.
There was a ton of relief as we walked the very short distance over to the Clerk’s office. As we walked in I commented that I thought they would be swamped because of the deadline, and was told that it was busier earlier, and that one of the clerk’s office employees “ears were bleeding” from so many phone calls.
We handed over the receipt, and verified that the water bills, parking ticket, personal property tax, and the parcel tax that they had written to us about was paid up. We would no longer be a logistical burden to them, and we’d be set for another year of live music.
That was when the question “is that all you paid” was asked.
We paid everything they told us to pay. EXACTLY the debt on the parcel in question, as well as the collateral debts connected to it.
They disappeared into a back office for a huddle, emerging several long minutes later with a story about a letter that the Clerks Office had received from the Legal Department, saying that the outstanding tax for 2016 on the adjacent building that we own would also need to be paid or the Cabaret License would not be granted! This information had been completely omitted from the original May 21 letter, and never alluded to by the City Treasurer, or made known to us in any additional paperwork, letters, emails, etc.
The letter they described, which had come from the legal department, had never been mailed to us: it had only moved between departments.
So at 5:20pm we left City Hall, $6000 poorer. And with no license to have live music.
If the absurdity of misleading constituents into thinking they owe one thing when they really owe another is lost on you, then please consider the absurdity of the law itself.
If you have a bar or restaurant in a building, and the building owner (your landlord) owes the city money, YOUR licenses are in jeopardy when it comes time to renew. Not only does that take control out of a tenants hands, but it allows for malicious misuse of the law by landlords who might be trying to strongarm their tenants into higher rent or lease extensions by holding off on paying, or who might try to use non-payment as an alternate means of eviction.
But back to the original letter that was sent to us about our “Class B Liquor License” (really? we’ve been alcohol free for 26 years): that letter’s contents were a misrepresentation of one debt versus two. In Wisconsin, bait and switch laws which deal with one amount being presented to a consumer and a different amount showing up at check-out or on the shelf are punishable by a $10,000 fine or 9 months in prison, for EACH incident. If these types of letters were sent out to hundreds of businesses, that is a huge amount of fines against the departments that misled the public.
While I do not believe malicious intent was involved, or that someone at City Hall necessarily has it “out” for us, sending out misleading information and random enforcement of an easily misused law from year to year is something that needs to be addressed by the City immediately. The haphazard way in which information is shared between departments and the inconsistent way in which license-holders are only partially notified is completely unacceptable with today’s technologies.
Now with no shows to bring in money, we’re in a bit of a Catch-22. Can’t do the shows to make the money, can’t make the money to get the license to do shows.
So the no alcohol venue thats been working to give kids an alcohol and drug free place to go for over a quarter century is shuttered while we all try to figure out how to get that additional money ($6412.09) before the next show, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday July 5 with bands from New Jersey, California, Michigan, and Washington.
If you wonder what the online fundraiser is all about, now you know. Thanks for taking the time to read all of this.
unpaid volunteer Executive Director
Warehouse Alliance Inc”
Without the ability to host shows in order to generate the needed revenue, Warehouse Alliance needs the community’s help more than ever if they want to continue serving the midwest music scene. We strongly encourage you to check out The Warehouse’s GoFundMe campaign, read the full story of the venue (including testimonials from concert goers and members of the music scene,) and consider donating to help get The Warehouse going again so it can continue serving Wisconsin and beyond for years to come.