John Jay Myers has owned The Free Man Cajun Café in Deep Ellum since 2011. Despite its proximity to concert venue The Bomb Factory, the small but booming bar is in a block protected from the gentrification affecting its rowdy neighbors on Main and Elm streets. Myers, a Louisiana native, brought a crawfish-flavored New Orleans spirit to the neighborhood through The Free Man’s menu, which is accompanied by two live acts daily. Every year on Fat Tuesday, as the gravel-voiced frontman of the swing-jazz band The Freeloaders, Myers leads a marching band around the streets of Deep Ellum.
The Cajun experiment proved successful, often filling the space to the brim. When the space next to his, formerly the Deep Ellum Trading Co., became available for rent at the end of last year, Myers took over the lease and began remodeling it to expand the bar. But The Free Man’s expansion, Myers says, has been postponed by what he describes as an interminable mess of red tape, specifically by excessive and contradictory provisions imposed by the Dallas Water Utilities Department.
Westdale, the property’s landlord, allowed six months of free rent for the estimated time of construction, but Myers says he’s had to pay the last eight months' rent out of the last 14 since he set out to expand The Free Man. The expansion, he says, has been derailed solely by the inability to connect the water. Between the demands of construction, escrow debt and lost time, he has spent close to $500,000, and every day the expansion remains unopened, he goes deeper in debt.
In a Facebook post last week detailing his back-and-forth with the water department, Myers wrote that last December he began working with the utility contractor to connect the venue’s water line. His estimated cost to connect the water, per his contractor, was $40,000. After engineering plans were deemed complete, the city discovered that a vault for the sprinkler system conflicted with part of an existing sewer line.
Myers suggested cutting a few feet off a sewer line, since no other business had use for it, but the city demanded that he replace the entire line and provide manhole access. This requirement, Myers says, added tens of thousands of dollars to his remodeling and was meant to replace a manhole removed by a utility project unrelated to his business. Myers submitted new plans to move the vault farther down the street, even though that meant more expense.
The city also demanded that he add a valve to the water main. While that valve supported the city’s infrastructure, it was irrelevant to The Free Man. In addition, the water department wanted a three-way contract with the city, which required more approvals and doubled the original estimate. As the contract was prepared, and after the plan was approved this April, Myers was informed that once the valves and parts were in place and holes dug in the street were covered with concrete, the city’s plan would require Myers to dig up the same paved portion just to connect other required pieces, instead of doing it all in one step.
“And to be fair,” Myers says in a phone interview, “the city realized that they were asking us to do an incredibly stupid thing. But the whole process of us going back and forth, that these ideas are stupid, just the process of that conversation added two months.”
The red tape didn't stop there. Myers was asked to get two traffic approvals to shut down a small side street for construction, so he filed new plans. In July, Myers says progress was stalled again as The Free Man waited to be assigned an inspector. The business was also awaiting a water department employee to cut off the water main so The Free Man could install the valve and water lines. Those employees finally showed up last Wednesday.
“Then we got hit again,” Myers wrote sarcastically on Facebook. “The inspector shockingly discovered that the Deep Ellum infrastructure is old.” He says he was told by the city’s own inspector that if they installed the valve the city demanded, the entire water line might break. “They advised us to resubmit drawings without the valve, which incidentally we did before 5 or 6 months ago. If the city makes us do anything else, I do not know how we will pay for the construction and certainly not the delays,” he wrote.
“The real problem here is that no one really knows what’s going on,” Myers says of the water department, “and they don’t really care what’s going to cost you what.”
The Observer left messages for Dallas Water Utilities public affairs coordinator Nichelle Sullivan and David Lam, Dallas senior program manager for water, who oversaw The Free Man’s case. We also contacted the office of City Council member Adam Medrano, who represents the area. No one called back.
UPDATE: Sullivan contacted us after this story appeared. “Sustainable Development & Construction has been in contact with the owner and has worked out a plan to resolve their issues,” she said.
"The worst part is,” Myers says, ”that it’s because of the way the city does things. You can’t get them to just go on anything. They have us paying rent at a building that can’t be open.” Myers says that in addition to the $10,000 he's been paying to rent a business he can't open, he pays $30,000 in monthly debt and has had to take out additional loans.
“It’s hard to continue a business when you’re paying this debt and can’t open your business,” Myers says.
Myers is no stranger to politics. He ran for Senate in 2012 as a Libertarian and lost to Ted Cruz.
As The Free Man’s owner, he’s dealt with seven incidents of theft. Thieves broke into the new property twice, and the venue’s copper piping was stolen from the open construction on its sidewalk.
But Myers is undeterred. He says Medrano helped straighten out the miscommunications holding up the opening and is hopeful for smoother sailing ahead. Myers assured customers and artists that The Free Man was not going out of business. But Myers still questions the fragmented communication between the water department's different sections and the fact that, in his words, “the city forces businesses to pay for improvements to general infrastructure beyond the scope of what our project actually needs.”
Myers says his accountant, Jordan Wagnon, puts the lost sales revenue at $200,000 a month. Add in rent, debt payments, overhead and insurance, and his total loss is $1.2 million.
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The lost revenue "could have covered the above payments, employed people, purchased inventory and even contributed to the city's own coffers through taxes," Wagnon says. "How many other businesses have suffered similar delays? Multiply these figures by 10, 100 or 1,000 other businesses each year, and that is the impact of just one department's red tape on the city economy."
“You can’t make any plans around the city,” Myers says. ”You can plan around a company you hire, but with the city it’s more like, ‘Yeah … we’ll get around to that.’ Our biggest problem through all this is that we couldn’t come to some agreement.” The compromise he's reached with the city should’ve come months ago, Myers says.
“If we open on September 1st, we will be $500,000 in debt," he says.
“In the end, we are moving forward with the same designs we gave them back in December, which is great, but it could’ve happened six months ago.”