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Initiatives would help music venues, downtown residents better coexist

Friday, May 17, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

Two new sound initiatives will go to Council next week. The Austin Music Commission approved language Tuesday for the creation of a new program and ordinance – the Music Venue Assistance Micro Loan Program and the Good Neighbor Policy – that collectively aim to help live music co-exist with development.

The message to music venues seems clear: less noise means better business.

“If this is going to help you not violate your sound impact plan, then that potentially unlocks later hours, then you can make more revenue – it’s a beneficial evolutionary cycle,” said Music Commission Chair Brad Spies.

The Music Venue Assistance Program would provide low-interest loans of up to $35,000 to help venues with “sound mitigation costs.” All loans will be subject to 1.5 percent interest rates.

According to Article 3, Section 52 of the Texas Constitution, it’s almost always illegal for local governments to loan money to private business. But it is permissible to authorize these expenditures for programs “fostering economic growth” and serving a “public purpose.”

Funds for the program were set aside in February 2012, and Council approval of the proposed guidelines will allow the city’s Music Division of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office to freely approve loans.

Over the last year, two case studies examined the effectiveness of installing sound barriers like directional speaker systems and sound buffering band shells. In light of the study, the music office noted a drastic reduction in sound complaints to 311 and 911.

“The fundamental reason behind this is allowing the venue to get what they need inside their foot print from a sound level,” said Music Program Manager Don Pitts.

Eligible project costs would include sound buffering fixtures, wall treatments, sound buffering curtains, directional speakers, Plexiglas enclosures for drum kits and laminated glass soundproofing windows.

However, the Commission showed some concern about how seriously venues would consider investing in these items. According to Commission members, running venues is an inherent labor of love that is decidedly less lucrative when compared to just operating a bar.

“I would be very surprised if more than eight venues apply,” said Music Commission Vice Chair Joah Spearman.

Yet the unanimous motion to approve drafted language stemmed from a prevailing thought that the loan program was, as Music Commission Member Rich Garza said, “A low risk tool that can potentially fix a lot of problems.”

Many of those problems stem from circumstance: increasing downtown residential density means more complaints about noise, even when venues operate within the rules. That’s where the Good Neighbor Policy takes root, by outlining safety procedures that would be required barriers for obtaining sound permits.

When outlining these bullet points, the Music Commission narrowed nine items to six. Approved conditions range from the obvious (“There shall be no amplified sound audible at the property line of the venue after cut off times”); to putting more onus on venue management to cover bases. This includes lighting nearby parking lots and sidewalks, making sure adjacent sidewalks are clear during busy events, cleaning litter and making sure venue owners are reachable by cell phone to “interested parties” for a minimum of one hour after closing time should there be problems.

“I think another unintended consequence but probably a pretty good one is the more interaction folks have with us, the more incentive they’re going to have to follow the rules and do things the right way,” said Garza.

Commission members emphasized that these rules were about keeping the peace between venues and neighbors by establishing a “united front” and “industry best practices.”

“This is where we are with music permits, especially downtown,” said Spearman, “Some of the venues are leaving downtown and a lot of development is happening downtown and we’re in the trenches and we need to protect what we have.”

Austin was officially named the “Live Music Capital of the World” in 1991, and the local economic impact, according to proposed Music Venue Assistance program guidelines, is over $1.6 billion annually.

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