2014
02.26

The goal of every community is “progress” – moving forward to give everyone a better life. However, some have different definitions of what “progress” actually looks like. Different visions of progress frequently lead to conflict as communities work out priorities and trade-offs.

Last Friday’s much-discussed closure of Chattanooga Street Tavern is a conflict over progress and how the term is defined for residents of LaFayette.

Chattanooga St Tavern

Tavern owners Mike and Gary Lovelady, and their supporters in the fight to illegally serve hard liquor, say that “progress” means changing the rules, allowing in hard drinks, bringing in new restaurants that represent jobs and economic growth. And while updating the city’s laws might deliver those results, that’s not what’s on the table today during a hearing about Chattanooga Street Tavern’s pouring license.

What IS on the table is ethical progress. Moving beyond a past of corruption and cronyism (or the “good ol boy system”) where misdeeds by some in the community are ignored because of last name, political position, social ties, or bank balance. Through the years LaFayette has been ethically lousy, developing a bad reputation for corruption and unfairness that has done far more to hold the city back than any restrictions on serving liquor.

This year LaFayette has its first new Mayor since 1991. The city also has three council members, an interim City Manager, a Codes Superintendent, and a police chief who have all come into their jobs within the last three years. The city has changed, considerably, since the dark days of Neal Florence, Tommy Freeman, Johnnie Arnold, Sam Parker, and Norm Hodge. New people put into positions of authority in LaFayette have made efforts to change, to reform the city both financially and ethically, but up until now they’ve not truly been put to the test.

The issue of Chattanooga Street Tavern and ALL the Lovelady-owned businesses being allowed to continue breaking city laws is that test, and a hard one. An opportunity for the city and its new leaders to decide if we’ll remain in those days of looking the other way or progress into a future where the law is applied equally to everyone regardless of who they are.

Friday evening LaFayette took the first step forward by temporarily suspending the Tavern’s pouring license. That decision was made by Police Chief Benjie Clift after an investigation into reports of hard liquor being served by Tavern employees during a Valentine’s Day Party fundraiser at Mars Theater. The chief also cited unreleased reports of minors served alcohol and liquor stored inside the Tavern as reasons for pulling the license.

Mike & Gary Lovelady

The Underground has no direct knowledge of current complaints about underage consumption or stored liquor but similar – and worse – reports have come in since the Lovelady family came back to LaFayette in 2011.

Before One Eleven opened, LU received accounts of inappropriate behavior, including an employee strip show, inside the building. Once the restaurant launched complaints began coming in steadily: minors drinking after school, employees drinking on the clock. Employees getting into fights with or being sexually harassed by Mike Lovelady’s business partner/manager/son Gary. Customers allowed to drink themselves into a stupor and then walk, or drive, away. Similar stories also leaked out of Chattanooga Street Tavern.

Most of the individual complaints received by this blog couldn’t be independently verified and were thus not repeated, but the volume and consistency of concerns from many different people was troubling and pointed to some real problems inside Lovelady, Inc.

Chattanooga Street Tavern Grand Opening

Lovelady-owned storefronts next to the Tavern in Mars Theater District have also been the subject of concerning reports; despite having the lowest rent in town, most businesses that moved into the Mars Theater District quickly moved out as tenants realized one of the “benefits” of that location was.. ..friendliness.. with Gary Lovelady. During a two year period the younger business partner befriended, flirted, texted, sexted, and frequently bedded at least six married women involved with the Tavern, One Eleven, or businesses located inside Lovelady’s complex.

What does that behavior have to do with this? For starters, it shows a pattern of abuse, of disregard for the law, and behavior that could hardly be defined as “progress” for the city.

But more seriously, the behavior is relevant because Mike Lovelady used one his son’s relationships to blackmail an elected city leader. In August 2013 he approached Interim City Manager Morrison and Economic Development Director Matt Williams, telling both he would share embarrassing information about a council member’s spouse with “the media” if LaFayette didn’t stop interfering with his business activities by investigating complaints.

Friday the city, after getting more complaints than could be ignored, finally interfered with Mike Lovelady’s business in a real way. And now we’ll find out if LaFayette is willing to pay the price – Mike’s price – for enforcing its own laws.

Mars Theater / Tavern 2nd Valentine's Day Party Advertisement

In addition to the blackmail threats, which aren’t accomplishing anything, Mr. Lovelady has suggested he will name names during the license hearing. Names of church leaders, city officials, business owners, and current/future politicians who attended the Valentine’s Day party or previous charitable events where alcohol was made available illegally. Some of those who may be named fear prosecution (which is unlikely), but most want to make sure their good names aren’t dragged into this.

That concern from connected, influential citizens has turned into pressure on some members of the City Council who are being strongly encouraged to make the whole thing go away before it gets ugly. Their behavior during the hearing today, and the eventual decision reached afterwards, will be observed and possibly punished by social or political means.

But that’s not what we elect council members and mayors to do. That’s not the way City Managers and police officers are called to be. Listening to a small segment of the population who happen to have an oversized amount of influence while ignoring the rules, which were approved by voters in 2009, is the opposite of democracy and fairness.

Mars Theater Closed

Lovelady’s response to the city removing his pouring license was to shut down both the Tavern and Mars Theater, changing the theater marquee to say “CLOSED BY ORDER OF THE CITY.” (Lovelady also claimed the city’s decision prevented him from posting on the Mars Theater Facebook page.) The Tavern and Theater (which did eventually reopen) could have both remained in business by simply not selling alcohol, but closing them down generated maximum attention and helped get customers and citizens worked up into a mad froth.

Regular Tavern customers and a handful of other supporters have reached that mad froth and apparently plan on showing up at the hearing, giving city leaders something else to be intimidated by. Their plan seems to be yelling and demonstrating enough that the Council ignores its own laws and lets the Loveladys and their businesses off the hook without punishment. But again, the issue here isn’t if the law should be changed (which is their demand) but whether or not the law was broken – a conclusion that seems unavoidable.

There may be a time when the issue of legalizing hard liquor sales, by the bottle AND by the drink, is discussed in LaFayette – but that time isn’t today. That’s a distraction from the core issues of holding people accountable for breaking the law.

Council members and community observers shouldn’t allow themselves to be distracted by theatrics, by threats of names being released, by threats of other organizations being investigated. They should also avoid being fooled by Mike Lovelady’s very public attempts at charitable giving and community service. That service is commendable, but much like colorful false-fronts on buildings an appearance of generosity can hide trouble beneath the surface.

Tammy Holcomb Free Drinks at Tavern

Lovelady and one of his employees who served as a bartender during the Valentine’s Day party and other events in the past have both admitted hard drinks were served at the Theater. But both claim the drinks were given away to guests, who paid $75 for admission and were asked to make $5 donations for each shot. Lovelady will also likely claim the event was “private” even though he advertised it all over Facebook, and challenge the police chief’s authority to remove his license.

Lovelady Facebook ConfessionOther arguments or claims of discrimination may come out, along with made-up charges of council members making threats against the Tavern and much of the blackmail material. Once the hearing is done, city leaders will have another ten days to decide about punishment – restoring the license, withdrawing it for a longer time, or revoking it entirely. The city could also decide to fine the Tavern for breaking beverage law. (Lovelady himself might later face charges related to his knowledge of the activities inside Mars Theater or the Tavern and his efforts to blackmail a councilman.)

Citizens who can attend the 11 AM hearing at City Hall are asked to make an effort, to attend the meeting and silently support the council and city officials in doing right, in making progress – not progress towards breaking the law and being beligerent, but progress towards holding everyone accountable for wrongdoing even if they’re breaking laws many consider outdated.

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10 comments so far

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  1. I’d like to add, as a side comment to this.. LaFayette has only had legal pouring of beer and wine in restaurants for about four years. The city has just now gotten used to that change, and quite a few people are still on the fence about it. The Lovelady boys’ activities in businesses licensed to sell just beer could make some wonder what would happen if hard liquor WAS made legal in the city. More than one person who was in favor of loosening the laws has changed their mind in light of all this.

    Those of you who think it’s a great thing for Mike Lovelady to martyr himself, his business, and his employees in the cause of forcing a law change might regret this if it ends up turning people away from what once seemed to be an inevitable change.

    Something to think about when you go storming City Hall in a few hours..

    – LU

  2. If all the accusations are true, I’d rather see every thing he owns shut down than the “progress” our little town gets embarrassed enough without him adding to it, but i don’t drink or hangout at bars so…

  3. I would just like to add something to this post for people who log on facebook, read this, and never visit any of Mike Lovelady’s businesses again because of this ignorance. I worked at One Eleven for a long time, and even when it first opened. I do not know where the accusations about underage drinking, sexual harassment, or this “strip show” came from, but they are all 100% false. There was never a strip show. I am a young, pretty girl, and Gary NEVER said one thing out of the way to me. And, I I.D.’ed every seemingly young person who ever bought alcohol, as did every other server. Maybe, every once in awhile, an underage person would try and buy a beer, but this is La Fayette, a place where everyone knows everyone. If the customer was underage, at least one person would know him/her, and he/she would not be served. When I started working at One Eleven, I was too young to serve alcohol. I was never allowed to serve ANY beverages until I turned 18. I was definitely NEVER allowed to drink.
    Although, I am sure LU would never take information from “confused” people (pshhh…), I can say with complete honesty that I know these accusations are false. I love what they are trying to do for this town, and it is truly heartbreaking that the government and all these backwoods politicians want to tear them down. Thank God Mike chose our trashy little town to open these businesses in, because business is something that LaFayette needs. I am sure after all this stupidity he is regretting the decision to move here, and that is so sad. All that Mike has tried to do for this town, and the only gratitude we show him is by bashing him? It is not right..

  4. I really think the LOVELADYS need to be run out of town.They moved here because they got ran out of the last town they lived in.They tried to blackmail a really nice young lady with their lies and deceet and I don’t think this will get them anywhere.

  5. I’m not from Lafyette Ga, and given the closed off nature of its citizens and 100% lack of economic progress, I don’t intend to stay here any longer than necessary. However that means that unlike yourselves, I don’t know ANYONE here. I always liked the Tavern, I never go at night and it seems like a nice enough place, but this is interesting. Is this just common knowledge to locals or is there someplace I can get more info on the “Lovelady’s”?

    Lafayette is in DESPERATE need of an economy, let alone businesses and the Tavern is at least a step up from the 4 fast food places here. I also don’t understand why everyone here is against selling beer. I’d think the alarming teen pregnancy rate would be more concerning or the fact that you have to drive an hour in any direction to shop or work. Or that the roads never get fixed. Or that Main Street only gets spruced up during an election year. Or why retail space is more expensive than Houston Tx (4th largest city in the US). Or the tax rate being so high and the pay so low.

    Seriously, who pretends to “run” Lafayette Ga? Why are they so economically hostile?

  6. Anonymous: What did you do at One Eleven before you were 18? It’s against the law for minors to work in the kitchen, and against the law to handle, serve, order, or otherwise be involved with alcohol.. You could be helping the case against this business owner.

    Bert: You’re not from here, so it’s hard to decide how much you know about things like election years of the price of retail space. The law isn’t about selling beer, it’s about selling hard liquor – and the issue isn’t whether or not the law should be changed, but if the law as it exists now was intentionally broken by the Lovelady family which has shown a complete disregard for the city and a lack of respect for its residents since rolling into town.

    – LU

  7. LU: No offense, but I’ve been stuck here for five years and your retail rates are outrageous(Why do you think the abandoned K-Mart is still sitting there?). So is your tax rate considering the size of the city and condition/state of repair of its housing and businesses. Anyone here would know this if they ever traveled beyond state lines. As far as election years; the only time I KNEW with certainty there was an impending election was when the local (Mayor?) fixed up Main Street. And people apparently fell for that lol.

    And fine, its hard liquor, not beer. If these Lovelady’s actually broke the law, then fine. Again, I don’t understand the preoccupation with viewing fermented vegetable drinks (aka alchohol) as “the devil” in this city. The standard of living here is hovering around the poverty line, people are shut off and unfriendly to outsiders (in a stereotypical comedic way), teen pregnancy and single mothers are rampant, the local government does NOTHING to promote jobs or economic growth.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that if anyone here took this Judge Dredd, hardcore approach to any other issue in the city, it might actually progress into the 20th or 21st century. It seems like people here spend more time feuding with each other than actually getting something done. From an outsiders perspective, since I don’t know the Lovelady’s, its just one more shuttered business in Lafayette and more people out of work.

    Lafayette, where jobs go to die.

  8. An outsider looking in tends to miss a lot. I’m an outsider with a look from inside. However, what the outside sees is important. LU is addressing a lot of issues that keep LaFayette as junky as it is. There are decades of favor driven gov’t, from the city council to the law enforcement, to the ones that hold the money. Its really like a soap opera of sorts. While you make a valid point about the small things that are seemingly made too big of a deal of, it results from the real problems that exist. And, as you noted, you don’t know the Loveladys or their background, or their intentions. One bar in town isn’t going to save town, and if you follow Lovelady’s business progress, you’ll see it is likely that this business will fail, just as his last one did. Lovelady is not in town to do business, Lovelady is in town to be in charge. There lies the problem. The city council that the town has now is by far better than it has been in a long time. I expect that there will be better decisions made from it, and hopefully some real progress for LaFayette. But lets not kid ourselves. LaFayette is never going to be a town of great progress and great economic well-being. It is far off the interstate, the infrastructure and population cannot support big businesses, big manufacturing, etc. It also is not going to be a tourist destination. What LaFayette needs to do is work on making itself a nice place to live. It is a bedroom community, and people don’t go to bedroom communities for the great economy, they go because they are nice and safe places to live while they commute to their jobs in larger communities.

  9. Outside Looking Out: now you’re just making excuses. I don’t particularly care one way or the other as I intend the leave this jobless hillbilly theater ASAP. Look up Tomball TX, it’s where I grew up. It started as a sleepy little rail road town, not unlike Lafayette but is literally BOOMING now. The difference being that Texans generally seek to improve their lives and understand how to grow an economy. There’s no logic in your argument, I’ve lived all over the US and have seen small towns explode into economic success stories. You’re trying to argue that people like minimum wage and driving an hour to get to the nearest movie theater because lafayette is nice to live in? It can’t sustain businesses? Info structure can be built, it’s the 21st out there for crying out loud. That’s so absurd I don’t even want to keep typing a counter argument. The level of ignorance in NW Georgia is absolutely staggering and the traffic level in the unemployment office would give anyone pause. Don’t agree? Cool beans, but don’t make excuses and say it can’t be done. It can, I’ve seen it first hand. But then again, the people in my home town have ambitions beyond beer cigarettes and scratch offs. Whatever floats your boat.

  10. Bob, I believe LU is a form of info structure.

    I’ve been to Texas too.. I didn’t see anything worth beating my chest about either.