The City of Greenville previously sent performance arts theater, Whirligig Stage, a notice in November 2019 which stated it failed to comply with zoning guidelines. The notice stated that Whirligig should refrain from hosting certain types of events and rental activities and now Whirligig is working with Greenville to figure out what is permitted under these guidelines.
Zoning is a key element for cities as they start to develop and the primary means by which the city separates uses according to Brock Letchworth, communications manager and public information officer for the City of Greenville. Letchworth said Greenville has several zoning ordinances and a committee titled the Horizons Plan that looks at land use in terms of growth for the community and future plans for the city.
“But as far as the zoning ordinances, it's a way of separating uses which some might consider incompatible. You’re separating things based on the use of the land, is it commercial, is it residential, is it agricultural, is it industrial, those types of things because you’re not going to have a residential subdivision (or) a McDonald's right in the middle of it,” Letchworth said.
Ways to get around with some of the zonings is for facilities to file for special use permits for variances with the Board of Adjustment, according to Letchworth. He said that The Board of Adjustment is a quasi-judicial board that makes decisions on variance in one of the zoning ordinances or a special use permit to operate something in a particular zone that is not currently permitted to be in that zone.
Letchworth said Whirligig is permitted for theatre, movie and drama. He said it can file for a permit to be a club or bar but will not be successful because the city has a 500-foot rule in place.
“When it comes to things like hosting club-like activities at Whirligig, they could file for a special use permit to operate as a bar type club atmosphere, however, in their particular circumstance, they would be denied because there is that 500-foot rule in place,” Letchworth said.
Whirligig was renting the facility out to a third party and had alcohol sales inside the facility which is not part of their permitted use, according to Letchworth. He said the City of Greenville has discovered that places such as Emerge Art Gallery and The Greenville Museum of Art, have done similar things in renting out to third parties but are more in line with the permitted uses of the facilities.
“There’s no defined club-like activity. It’s one of those things that you just kind of know when you see it. It could be cover charges, amplified sounds, the sale of liquor, its DJing, those types of things,” Letchworth said. “When you start looking into things like amplified sound and other things that are associated with club-like activities, that is not in line with the theatre, movie, drama permitted use for Whirligig.”
However, Jefferson’s Florist and Wine Shop owner Michael Glenn, who is also the neighbor of Whirligig Stage, said in an email statement he believes that club-like activity did take place in the fall of last year. In the statement, he said Jason Coale, executive director and manager member of Whirligig Stage, leased out Whirligig to party promoters, who held multiple parties that would be considered night club activity.
“In the fall of last year, the owner of Whirligig, Jason Coale began leasing the venue to non-affiliated ‘party promoters’ as an event space who held a number of late-nights parties, during which the venue essentially acted as a ‘pop-up’ night club. These events involved a 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. event time, required metal detectors and security at the door and a cover charge,” Gleen said in the statement.
During these night club events at Whirligig, Glenn said in the statement that the Greenville Police Department was called more than once due to amplified sound. He said in the statement the club-like events resulted in public discrepancies including multiple physical altercations between attendants.
When Glenn reached out to Coale about the night club events held at Whirligig, Glenn said in the statement that Coale informed him that he had no control over what the party promoters did at the venue. However, Glenn said in the statement that Coale was in attendance and serving alcohol to attendants with Whirligig’s ABC permit.
“Additionally, there were two documented fights which took place: one in front of Pitt Street Brewery around midnight and another fight between two groups of attendees around 1:15 a.m. in the parking lot behind Southern Soleil and Michael Brandon Styling,” Glenn said in the statement.
When Coale began to reach out to the Greenville community for support when the City of Greenville began to cancel events at Whirligig Stage in the fall after reports of this club-like activity, Glenn said Coale claimed the events that the cancelled events revolved around poetry and theatrical events instead.
Though Glenn said in the statement Coale may have taken negative actions during this time, he still hopes for Whirligig to thrive in the future and provide a positive event space for the community.
“I don’t believe anyone would want to see a community theater fail nor do I believe the city is overstepping in their response. Jason has brought a lot of positive activity to a formerly vacant building, unfortunately it’s his actions alone that led to the zoning response. I wish the best for the future of Whirligig,” Glenn said in the statement.
When asked about the club activities Whirligig has held in the past, Coale said he believes he followed the guidelines set by the City of Greenville when these events took place.
“We believe that everything that we have been doing and continues to do has been dug within the guidelines set forth by the city in terms of what we are and are not able to do. That’s where the confusion came in,” Coale said.
Coale said he thought it was a specific type of event that the city was trying to target but during their meetings, it was a wide array of events, mostly any event that has a standing room type of atmosphere where people can move about and dance.
Whirligig is not able to afford a legal team to assist with the legal paperwork required to make the zoning changes, according to Coale. He said this is why he has recently tried to cooperate with the city to settle the issue.
“Unfortunately it’s not just Whirligig (who have had zoning issues). You’ve heard a lot about it from Whirligig because we were able to present this issue in a way that gets attention to it,” Coale said. “But it's a problem that has performers, artists, and communities in Greenville that had to fight against it for a while now and I’m looking forward to seeing some revisions for the good.”
Coale said that there were several instances of neighbors calling the city zoning department with noise complaints during these activities who referred to the events as urban parties.
Whirligig spoke with the owners of properties around them, Glenn specifically, about the noise and tried to work with neighbors on those issues and work with the police, according to Coale.
“We believe we’ve been fully compliant with the law but at the same time, if we’re creating a disturbance in the neighborhood, we are willing to go above and beyond what the law says to work with our neighbors,” Coale said.
However, Coale said he thinks there are segments of the community that are being targeted. He said that the types of events that are being restricted are a younger demographic with specific upbringings who enjoy rap and hip hop.
“But with folk music with the same position: dance floor, cover charge, bar, live music, recorded music. That can also be applied to little kids dancing for a Wiggles concert, so why aren’t we shutting those down? Why only hip hop or rap? What is it about those types of events that separate them out? Those are the groups that are being targeted,” Coale said.
Coale said these types of disagreements and issues happen across the country and are just natural. He said he hopes everyone moves away from the situation and hopes for change as a result of it and is not something Whirligig is able to spend a lot of time on.
The city has communicated with Whirligig on numerous occasions on the expectations and the uses that are permitted for the facility, according to Letchworth. Letchworth said a text amendment that would allow for the rental to a third party would be a step in the right direction of getting it resolved.
“As far as if whether its resolved, from a city standpoint, I think that we have gone out of our way to talk with the owners of the facility and explain what uses are permitted, try to clarify what types of events we are talking about when we are talking about clublike events that were being hosted there,” Letchworth said.
Letchworth said he believes communication is the key to resolving anything and hopes that lines of communication stay open and if there are any questions about whether it be in violation of city zoning and the permitted uses of the facility that the owner would be willing to communicate with the city to try to talk about that and make sure we are all on the same page.