Art and Commerce Street

Jeff Swaney has been doing business in Deep Ellum for a long time, since the area was little more than abandoned warehouses and starving artists. Swaney and his then-partner Steve Clohessy began hosting parties in the old Clearview Blind building on Elm Street in the mid-1980s, eventually turning it into a real nightclub -- Club Clearview, appropriately enough -- before settling into its current location on Main Street. And almost since he first moved into Deep Ellum, Swaney has been trying to clean up the place, make it profitable.

His efforts date as far back as 1985, when he and Clohessy proposed the Deep Ellum Clubowners Association, which was intended "to better the area's image, to bolster security and awareness of the area, and to [create] a focused concept of what everyone's venue is." He had a vision for Deep Ellum, one that would lead him into a new career in real estate development. Now -- as the owner of Delphi Group Inc. Real Estate Services, which specializes in property management, commercial leasing, and commercial sales -- Swaney controls a number of properties in the area, most of them along Commerce Street.

Fifteen years after he arrived, Swaney is still trying his best to turn Deep Ellum into the profitable venture he envisioned so many years ago. He recently unveiled a marketing plan -- a cooperative effort between Delphi Group and local business owners -- that he hopes would make Commerce Street the new entertainment destination in Deep Ellum, and maybe, all of Dallas.

The campaign only recently began, but Swaney intends for it to include a number of events -- street festivals and club crawls, among others -- that will "develop an acknowledgement...have some people change their habits and bring new people in." To hear him discuss it, his vision for Deep Ellum excludes a majority of the area. Then again, that's the part of Deep Ellum he doesn't own.

"Quite candidly, everybody's heard of Deep Ellum," Swaney says. "Everybody's got an opinion of Deep Ellum -- good, bad, indifferent. What we're trying to do is, rather than slam Deep Ellum down people's throats, where they say, 'I already go there. I already know why I'm going there.' Or, 'I don't like it down there. I don't want to go down there.' Or whatever. It's to actually get them to focus on Commerce Street as a destination, instead of pumping Deep Ellum, Deep Ellum, Deep Ellum. They've been hammered with that for 10 years."

But Swaney hasn't given up on Deep Ellum as a whole just yet -- at least, that's what he says. He likes to think of the campaign as sort of an "entry level to Deep Ellum for some people," a way to get consumers into the entire area by focusing on one aspect of it. Of course, the place he wants them to enter through, Commerce Street, wasn't randomly chosen. Delphi Group owns much of the property on Commerce, and Swaney is a partner in one of the restaurants on the street, Ketama, along with Crystal Clear Sound owner Sam Paulos and Ketama founder Ildefonso Jimenez.

"We have more of our properties there than probably on any other street, and that's one of the reasons," Swaney admits. "I'm also a partner in Ketama, and that's another one of the reasons we're doing it. But I really thought that -- globally, the big picture -- the best opportunity was on Commerce. We're pretty stoked about the opportunity to get something started."

Not much has been started yet, though the marketing plan is only 2 months old, put into action shortly after Swaney organized a meeting of all the business owners on Commerce Street. So far, the campaign has amounted to the circulation of 20,000 Commerce Street brochures around town, which highlight what the businesses between Malcolm X Boulevard and Good-Latimer Expressway have to offer. (First on the list: "lots o' parking.")

"It's the forgotten street," says Pete Zotas, owner of St. Pete's Dancing Marlin. "If you know about it, you know about it. If you don't, then you won't, because there's not a Commerce Street ad campaign. We've just kind of taken it upon ourselves to spread the word a little bit."

The brochures also prominently feature the tagline area merchants came up with to attract consumers to their businesses: "Take a walk on the fun side."

"It might seem a little fluffy," Swaney says of the brochure and its unfortunate pickup line.

Fluffy is one of the words that could be used to describe Swaney's attempted makeover of a street that was often thought of as the dangerous part of Deep Ellum when it was first being settled, and even as recently as a few years ago. It was the street where the punk bands played: originally, at Russell Hobbs' pair of clubs (the Prophet Bar and Theatre Gallery) and Charlie Gilder's Twilite Room, and later at the Orbit Room. Until last June, the Orbit Room was still in existence, occupying the building that now houses Beer Goggles.

But Orbit Room owner Hector Fontecha was forced out when he couldn't afford the rent, and Swaney essentially cleaned up the street -- in his mind, at least -- in one fell swoop. The Orbit Room may have been the last bastion of the Deep Ellum that Swaney first set up shop in. When it died, so did the remainder of the area's original spirit. Now, the dangerous part of Deep Ellum has become a fairly bland strip of interchangeable restaurants. However, according to Russell Hobbs, that happened a long time ago. Swaney's new scheme for Commerce Street is just business as usual, the same thing that's been going on for the past decade.

"I can't be anything but sarcastic on this subject," says Hobbs, who now owns another nightclub, The Door, on Elm Street. "I don't hate Swaney. I think he's a fine guy. I just have absolutely no interest in his vision. It's just so typical, you know? Everybody wants to make a buck. Dallas is so sterile and shallow in its dollar-seeking ventures. It's so lame. Then we had this thing called Deep Ellum for a while that had some moss growing on it, some beauty and uniqueness. And, by God, every commercial demon in the world is gonna come down here and stomp it out." Hobbs laughs. "The beat goes on; what can I say?"

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain