Part one of two, by Roger McCredie.
Whether you are an Asheville homeowner replacing a water heater, a small business owner starting a new restaurant or a contractor building an office building, your project will need to obtain a permit. The process for obtaining a permit depends on the scope of your project. City of Asheville staff can help you determine the route you will need to take through the development process for your project …
“Permits and Applications,” City of Asheville Website.
By the time Ben Reese finished active duty in the Air Force, he had decided what he wanted to do in civilian life. He wanted to cash in on Asheville’s burgeoning night life scene by bringing a new wrinkle to it: a “dueling piano bar” where customers could request and listen to old favorites and even join in – not necessarily expertly but enthusiastically. On the website he put up when he acquired the old Cinjade’s building in September, Reese promised his place would offer “a rock-and-roll, sing-along, total party atmosphere” with neighborhood bar overtones, a sort of “Cheers” with music instead of big-screen sports. He decided to call it “Off the Wagon.”
So Reese had a plan and a little money and was fortunate enough to capture an already well-known location on historic North Market Street. (The building itself once housed Asheville’s first Chamber of Commerce.) But he knew that before his house musicians could bang out the first chorus of “The Piano Man” or “Mustang Sally,” he would have to do some fixing up and that he would need to obtain permits to do it. No big deal, he figured. The work would be mostly cosmetic with little actual construction involved; he was essentially replacing one bar with another.
Thus, Off the Wagon’s website, which describes its ambience, its service, its availability for parties and even its line of merchandise, is written in the present tense, as though it’s already a reality. Which is a little embarrassing, because Off the Wagon still isn’t open and won’t be fully functioning when it does open; and that, according to Reese, is because he has been involved in a harsh learning curve concerning the city of Asheville’s permitting and inspection process.
Reese says he consulted city guidelines and accordingly submitted a set of drawings showing his proposed changes, only to be told he would need an architect. Taken aback, he consulted an architect who inspected the drawings and said, “Why do you need me?”
“That was $800 I didn’t need to spend,” Reese says, “so I thanked him and left.” Reese says at this point he began trying to call various people in the inspection department for further guidance, but could not reach them and his voice mails to them were not returned. Since he was becoming increasingly anxious about meeting his own deadlines, and since his remodelling plans were minimal and he already had all the permits he thought he needed to proceed, Reese says, he had a crew begin work.
That’s when Off the Wagon’s grand opening plans went off the rails. Suddenly, Reese says, the same inspectors he had not been able to reach were all over him like white on rice.
“We were taking up the old carpet and filling in a hole in the wall where an old coat closet had been,” Reese says. “Suddenly we were told that work needed a separate demolition permit. How is that ‘demolition?’ We were fined $500 because, we were told, we should have been working with a ‘design professional’ and they pulled my CO [Certificate of Occupancy].
“Then here came the fire marshal with a stop work order. He said I’d need an entire new sprinkler system, which was the first I’d heard of that. He also cut off the power, then and there. I got back on the phone to the city, to see what we could do to get this fixed once and for all,” Reese says, “and once again the people I was trying to reach didn’t answer and I couldn’t get my calls returned.”
So, well past the time Off the Wagon was originally scheduled to open, Asheville’s first and only duelling piano bar was dead in the water. Reese had had to purchase a demolition permit (“Seventy-eight dollars for $500 worth of work”) and another $1,200 for a permit to install a $52,000 sprinkler system he had previously been unaware he needed. With the electricity still off Reese and his crew continued to do what they could at the location during daylight and, after dark, by candlelight — not from defiance but from desperation.
But what Reese describes as the most bizarre turn of events had not happened yet.
“The stormwater department accused us of dumping wastewater into the stormwater system,” he recalls, “and they threatened to fine us $25,000 per day – per day – until we fixed it. So we all went out in the alley where the [stormwater] drain is and spent six hours in the freezing cold trying to figure out what they were talking about and fix it. Then we called [stormwater services] and told them to come check out what we had done. They came and looked and said, ‘Oops, it wasn’t you. Sorry.’ Turns out the water was coming from another building’s line, three feet away.”
Playing whack-a-mole with the city’s permitting and inspection processes has been playing havoc with Reese’s personnel situation as well. “I hired a super pianist out of Las Vegas and he came all the way out here to report for work. I had to send him back to Vegas so he could support himself while he waits for me to tell him we’re ready,” Reese says. “And I hired a girl who moved down here from Rhode Island. She’s still waiting to start, and I’m paying her what I can.”
Pending installation of the new sprinkler system, the city has cut Off the Wagon’s legal occupancy from 700 to 99, and Reese now predicts it will be February before the sprinklers are in place. Meanwhile, he has also been told he’ll need to purchase a mechanical work permit in order to clean his HVAC system. “There’s no mechanical work involved; we just want to clean it out,” he says.
“I spent a long time in the military. I’m used to procedures,” Reese, now a Major in the North Carolina Air National Guard, says. But this beats anything I ever saw.”
In a papered-over window facing Market Street, a sign displays Off the Wagon’s logo and the optimistic legend, “coming soon.”
If you’ve also been thrown “Off the Wagon” and want to discuss it, please let us know.
Next: Other city businesses relate their dealings with the Permits and Inspection Department. Still others say they’d rather not, for fear of reprisal. City officials respond.