Out of Orbit

On Thursday, Hector Fontecha will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the opening of the Orbit Room. Bands will play, regulars will come, and all will be as it has been, for the most part, since June 18, 1993, when the Buck Pets and Bedhead inaugurated the club that has since become a rare punk-rock haven in a neighborhood growing more and more upscale. Then, just a few days later--once the Dirty Three has finished playing its set and stowed its gear in the van and moved on to the next town--Fontecha will turn out the lights and lock the door for the last time.

The Orbit Room will close on June 23, five years and five days after it opened on what was then a rather desolate stretch of Commerce Street. The announcement comes as something of a shock: Situated in a revolving-door downtown where clubs come and go with every sunset, the Orbit has become an institution, withstanding the constant evolution of a neighborhood that can't decide whether it wants to be SoHo or the West End. But no more--"It's about that time," Fontecha says as he walks away from the club he co-founded.

And he does so with bitterness, not fondness, placing the blame for the Orbit's demise squarely on the shoulders of one man--Jeff Swaney, among the most aggressive real estate developers in Deep Ellum and, once upon a long time ago, a rock-and-roll club owner himself. Fontecha insists that Swaney, who a year ago purchased the block of buildings that houses the Orbit Room, wants the Orbit gone in order to "yuppify" Deep Ellum, to turn it into the Addison of the south. To that end, Fontecha says, Swaney is charging him more money for less space, squeezing him out of business.

"It's not like we wanted to go, believe me," Fontecha says. "Am I mad? Yes. Am I disappointed? Yes. Am I pissed at Jeff Swaney? I don't agree with what he's doing, let's put it that way."

Swaney, on the other hand, insists he has "bent over backwards" to keep the Orbit Room open. "I like the place," he says. "I've hung out there, drank a beer at the bar. I think it's got a good vibe...I would love him [Fontecha] to stay."

Who you believe, perhaps, depends upon whether you think Deep Ellum is on its last legs or only beginning to emerge from its cocoon--whether you prefer smoke-and-booze punk-rock bars, such as the Orbit, or shiny-new tapas-and-flamenco-jazz joints like Ketama, the Orbit's next-door neighbor and another of Swaney's tenants. The Orbit Room-Swaney battle, it seems, is just one more skirmish in the war for Deep Ellum's heart, soul, and wallet: They don't call it Commerce Street for nothing.

Fontecha says Swaney recently took away an adjoining parking lot and the courtyard that separates the Orbit Room's main bar and its larger performance space, without reducing his $2,500-a-month rent. He also insists that Swaney is forcing him to pay extra fees for trash-hauling ($50 a month), $200 a month in insurance, and another $200 a month in something he refers to as "association fees."

According to Fontecha, yes, Swaney has indeed been in the Orbit Room...showing it to potential investors who might be interested in leasing the space. "He has wanted us out since the beginning," Fontecha says. "I don't want to leave."

But Swaney says Fontecha has it all wrong: The founding partner in Club Clearview (and, later, Blind Melon and the Art Bar and their now-defunct Addison offspring) says that he and his real estate company, Delphi Group Inc. Real Estate Services, have approached Fontecha several times about staying, offering him various financial breaks. But, he offers, Fontecha never returned any calls to Delphi or showed any interest in trying to work out a deal.

"We put together a number of suggestions and faxed them in a timely fashion, and they never responded," Swaney says. "I don't know what to tell you. And we always know in the end they're going to go to the media and try to create some kind of controversy, like we're the evil land barons or something."

Swaney says the extra money he wants from Fontecha is to cover building insurance and various local taxes. Swaney says the fees are paid by the building's other tenants, which include Dred and Irie, Ketama, and the Jet Lounge (which is owned by the same guys who run the Harder Bar on Lower Greenville). Fontecha says he already has his own coverage and refuses to pay Swaney's added premium costs. "We already have insurance," he says. "Why do we need Swaney's do-we-cheat-'em-and-how insurance?"

But Swaney says the Orbit's insurance covers only the club's contents and other liabilities, not the building itself, which is Delphi's responsibility.

In the end, this becomes a he-said-he-said story with an unhappy ending: Deep Ellum loses a vital live-music venue, and Fontecha's struggle to keep the doors open despite dwindling receipts is all for naught. Worse, his wife is expecting a child shortly, and he now finds himself without work.

Swaney and Fontecha agree on one thing: Business is down in Deep Ellum. Swaney blames the Orbit's demise on the shrinking crowds; Fontecha sort of does, as well, saying that the threat of violence and the lack of police downtown is keeping away the North Dallas crowd and money both men would like to keep luring south. But Swaney, who owns and leases so much Deep Ellum property (to the likes of broadcast.com and myriad other tenants), will find another lessee for the space. Fontecha will have to find another club or another town, maybe Denton, or maybe just another kind of job all together.

"I don't need to be rich," Fontecha says. "I just wanted to stay in business. The whole idea was to stay here 10 years." He only had four years and 360 days to go.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky