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Jim DeRogatis

Congress Theater responds to complaints

(Flickr/Ian Freimuth)

As he faces a Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance Hearing at City Hall, Congress Theater owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza maintains that his frequently criticized venue is “no better in condition or no worse in condition” than other Chicago music halls such as Metro, the Aragon Ballroom and the Vic and Riviera theaters.

As reported here Friday, music-friendly 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno has called the hearing on April 17 because of what he says is Carranza’s recalcitrance in addressing serious problems at the 86-year-old Logan Square/Wicker Park landmark (which has a capacity alternately reported as 3,500 and 4,690), including shoddy security, unabated noise difficulties for neighbors and underage drinking and drug use.

Although Moreno has emphasized that the Congress was not responsible for the nearby sexual assault and brutal beating of a young woman who’d been turned away from the venue for lack of an ID on New Year’s Eve, Carranza says the alderman has called the hearing because of that incident; that the theater has been working to correct many problems cited by neighbors and that the city’s intensified scrutiny is premature and evidence of a local situation that’s “gotten out of hand.”

Though attorney Homero Tristan says his client has owned the theater since 2005 or 2006, Carranza worked there for some time before that "to learn the business prior to going through the cost and expense" of buying it. Carranza and Tristan did not respond to requests for comment in time for the first post on Friday morning, but the two reached out to “tell our side of the story” on Friday afternoon. A transcript of that hour-long interview follows, edited only to eliminate redundancies and irrelevant asides.

Tristan: We disagree with a lot of the statements that have been put forth as a general matter. There’s nothing that the Congress did that was wrong there [with the sexual assault]. Because of neighborhood concerns, we entered into meetings with the alderman’s office. The neighborhood wanted to discuss this. There are certain things that they had concerns about, and there are certain things that we were going to address. For the most part, we’ve addressed a lot of them. I think what your article focused on are one or two items that are either still under review or that we’re just not going to do.

Carranza: It’s not that we’re not going to do them, it’s just that they’re things that are not really practical. But this is a local thing. I don’t know how it got out of hand, but this is a really local conversation that kind of got out of hand.

Tristan: For example, the article points to the alderman saying that he suggested that we hire people from his organization to do some of the [security] work. We tried that. But after a better review of it, hiring people from his organization who are not licensed security personnel doesn’t address the issue on security. A very large percentage of the security [we hire] are off-duty Chicago police officers from the district—trained Chicago police officers. To say that it’s lousy security is probably an issue that should be taken up with [the Chicago Police Department]. For me, there’s a disconnect for how he gets to that conclusion.

Carranza: We do kick a lot of people out, and people who get kicked out Yelp [post negative comments online]. A lot of the Yelps are because we kick people who are not behaving out.

Honestly, I’ve been to every venue. I’ve been to Aragon, I’ve been to Vic, I’ve been to Metro. My opinion, and you can quote me: We’re no better in condition or no worse in condition than any of those venues. As you know, promoters in this industry use that kind of language against each other’s venues to attract artists, and if you know this industry, there’s a lot of comments that go back and forth to get the artists. We are no better or no worse than any of those other venues.

Q. Really? Really? We first met years ago when I was reviewing a show at the Congress, and you said to me, “I disagree with things you’ve written about the Congress,” about the state of the venue, and you defended the building. As of this morning, I’ve heard from dozens of Chicago music fans who’ve said, “It’s about time the city did something; this is the worst venue in Chicago!” These are paying customers; these are not your competitors.

Carranza: We have a lot more paying customers that say positive things.

Tristan: You’re probably going to see some fans complain about some items in the Congress, as they probably will about Aragon.

Carranza: Everybody gets complaints. You should know that.

Q. Of course. But I’ve been reporting on Chicago music for 20 years, and I know what is pointless grumbling and what is justified complaining. And by far I hear more complaints about the Congress than any other venue.

Carranza: The Congress has been in business, real business, five years. Every dime that we make goes back into the building. Unfortunately, we don’t have the deep pockets Jam, Live Nation and C3 have. If we did, we would have fixed it. It’s a work in progress. The money we make, we put it back into it. We bought a very expensive sound system that nobody else has. That’s why we have a competitive advantage: We have our own in-house sound system. We save [artists] $15,000 to $20,000 by having our own in-house production.

Q. What happened with Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents? In 2008, you announced a deal that they would be booking the venue exclusively. Shortly thereafter, I sat with “the three Charlies” who run the company in their offices in Austin, Texas, and asked about improvements to the building, and they said that once they were up and running with you, they would look at paying for improvements. It never happened.

Carranza: We worked with them for a while and we felt that being independent, we would be more profitable. We still work with them; we have a great relationship with them. But we felt that it would be better working independently but together, not with them as exclusive bookers.

Tristan: Nowhere in the deal points did it have anything about them investing in the infrastructure of the theater. It was like Jam and the Aragon. [Jam Productions books the independently owned Aragon Ballroom.] But the agreement ended and both parties walked away from it. C3 still does shows in there…

Carranza: This year some of the major headliners at Lollapalooza will play after-parties at the Congress.

Tristan: So it didn’t end badly, and we still do business with them.

Q. What happened with Live Nation/House of Blues?

Carranza: With Live Nation… there’s nothing wrong with being independent. What if I didn’t want to sell to Brooklyn Bowl and make it into a bowling alley? [On Friday, Moreno said the Congress rejected an offer from the Brooklyn Bowl to invest $10 million in the theater.] Just because somebody throws a lot of money at me doesn’t mean I have to take it. My world is not about money. My world’s about building a promoting company that maybe I can sell for more money in the future.

Q. You saw what Moreno said: He said he’s all in favor of independents. But he doesn’t believe you have the resources to run the building right.

Tristan: The alderman may want somebody with a lot of money to come in, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an independent promoter keeping his business.

Q. Of course not. I am asking about what people at Live Nation and C3 and others in the industry tell me as a reporter: They were eager to help the Congress become a better venue, but they couldn’t do it because Eddie is difficult to work with. Now, that may be a lie, Eddie, but that’s what I’ve been told again and again.

Carranza: Live Nation… If you knew the crappy offer Live Nation made me, I was doing better renting to independent promoters! They tried to take advantage of somebody new in the industry with a nice venue.

[At this point, Carranza made some comments that are best paraphrased because of the lack of clarity in the original quotes. He said that Jam Productions co-founder Arnie Granat loaned him a considerable sum--Tristan later put the figure at approximately $200,000--to prevent him from selling the Congress to Jam’s archrivals, Live Nation. Carranza added that he “still owes Arnie more than $100,000.” Granat could not be reached for comment, but his partner and Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson confirmed the loan. Mickelson said it was to “help Carranza fix the building,” and it had nothing to do with Live Nation. Well-documented, however, is the fact that Jam purchased the Vic, Riviera and Uptown theaters in large part to prevent Live Nation from buying them and thereby competing even more ferociously with Jam. Jam dominates live music in Chicago in mid-sized theaters, while Live Nation dominates larger-scale arenas.]

Q. The bigger point your critics raise is that you seem to need a lot of money to improve the Congress Theater. I’ve been to your bathrooms, Eddie…

Carranza: Have you been to the Riv? And the Vic? They’re just the same.

Q. They are not. There is a difference between rock ’n’ roll seedy and downright disgusting. The Congress is the latter.

Carranza: Like I said, I don’t think we’re any better or worse than the Riv or Metro.

Q. What about the drug complaints?

Carranza: We compete with every one of these promoters for these same artists. The artists like working with us because the promoters that do these events are good friends with these artists. Everybody wants these artists. I don’t know why anybody would say that nobody wants these artists.

Q. Nobody is saying that. What the alderman is saying, and what I have heard from many of your neighbors and customers, is that there is underage drinking and drug use in the venue because your security is not up to par.

Tristan: I can tell you right now…

Carranza: We haven’t had one incident! We haven’t had one strike! I’ll tell you where this comes from, a lot of these rumors that started. One of the conditions with the alderman was that we had to hire four of his constituent people in the neighborhood, and we hired them. We were paying them. These constituent neighborhood people, they had no license, no security experience. We hired them because the alderman wanted us to, and we did. These people that worked there temporarily and ended up getting fired because they were not team players, they would not take our security radios… They were not good employees, so we fired them, and that triggered the aldermen and one community leader who placed them there to start making up stories, taking pictures of people that looked kind of drunk, taking pictures of party buses… party buses drop people off at many venues!

Q. What you’re describing is an alderman with a vendetta. But Moreno has the strongest record of supporting independent music businesses of anyone in city government.

Carranza: He doesn’t know the in-depth of the music industry in Chicago.

Q. Yes, he does. I’ve interviewed him extensively on it.

Tristan: It’s our viewpoint that this deleterious impact process, I think it’s premature and completely unnecessary. We sat down with the alderman soon after the incident [the sexual assault] in January and started to implement some of these changes. They can’t expect us to have wholesale changes overnight, including security cameras and different types of items. Just about all of the other issues they wanted us to resolve have been resolved. There have been hiccups with a couple. But I say this is premature because we were working on a lot of these items. Some of the things we’re not going to do, like hire folks they’re sending us, because I don’t know what their qualifications are.

Q. What about working to solve the noise complaints from neighbors?

Tristan: That’s one of the items… It has been raised, and I said we’re going to take a look at this. I asked [the alderman’s office] for the addresses, and we have not received them. This is over three weeks ago.

Carranza: If there is a noise complaint, it’s one or two homes, and we visit them consistently.

Tristan: I’m not trying to be disingenuous by saying, look, we don’t have the addresses, therefore we can’t fix it. That’s not what I’m suggesting to you. What I’m saying is that in part of our attempt to work with the alderman’s office, we asked for the addresses so we could be certain we were addressing them.

Q. Look, any situation like this is a spider web of complexities. Let’s step back a bit. What I still don’t understand is that you have an alderman who has stuck his neck out fighting for the rights of independent music calling a City Hall hearing about problems at your independent music venue.

Carranza: I agree with you. I don’t think it’s too much Moreno, I think it’s Ronda [Locke], his assistant…

Q. But I spoke to Moreno for an hour, and there was anger in his voice and frustration that you have not been dealing with what he says are serious problems.

Carranza: We’ve been debating this since New Year’s, and we’ve completed all of these conditions except for the cameras. But they keep repeating the same conditions and saying we haven’t done them. What we don’t understand is that when they made this hearing with the city, they said that the majority of the community wanted it, when in reality they never even advised the community.

Tristan: To reiterate what Eddie said, I don’t think that Joe has any kind of… You heard anger and frustration in his voice, but in my view, I can’t explain how we went from a process where we were in my view talking through some of these issues to then having it completely break down. And that’s something the Congress will address with the alderman’s office, because if there’s this disconnect between what they believe we should be doing and what we are doing, then we need to resolve that. I think there’s a frustration for many different reasons. Are they misguided? Perhaps. At this point, it is our hope through this process to continue working with the community to fix or address some of the issues that they see, or educate them on some of the issues they see as problems and say, “Look, we don’t believe it’s prudent to hire individuals who are untrained as security.” If he’s frustrated, maybe he is, because I don’t think he wants to go through this process any more than we do. I don’t think it’s the alderman saying, “I want to take down this music venue.” He’s even said he likes Eddie.

Q. Actually, he said he “loves” Eddie.

Carranza: It just got out of hand. There are other venues that have had serious issues, and they’ve never been to a hearing. There’s something that happened near us [the sexual assault], and we have to go to a hearing. I don’t understand that.

Q. Moreno clearly said several times that the Congress is not moving fast enough to fix significant problems. And as I said, I hear from dozens of music consumers who are dissatisfied with the Congress.

Tristan: [Your article] talks about people getting high in there and bags full of Whip-Its…

Carranza: If that was the case, you know that no venue could operate like that.

Tristan: I just want to stress to you again that there are off-duty police officers there and it’s really insulting to the uniforms to say that they would be involved in something like that. There are no drug sales there; that’s insulting and it’s not true.

Q. So you hope to clear all of these things up at the hearing?

Carranza: I don’t think this hearing is that important.

Q. I quoted city ordnance in my last article: It’s a first step toward revoking your liquor license…

Tristan: We’re not saying that it’s not serious. We obviously know it’s serious. What we’re saying though is that there is nothing in the items that the alderman’s office has asked and the community has asked us to address that we don’t think we can accomplish or have a conversation about. Does it make sense to install a $50,000 camera system on the outside? We have to talk about whether that’s even something that is necessary. Should we be policing three blocks outside of the radius of the Congress? We have to talk about some of those items. For some of these, sure, we’re going to do them. For others, we have to just educate the community and through dialog we’ll be able to get to a point where they understand either items that we will be doing or won’t be doing and then we’ll all come to agreement. I think it will be good to get through this process. Going through this process and hopefully ending it in short order is going to get the right people in the room talking about issues.

Q. You still haven’t really addressed the complaints I hear from many fans about the quality of the experience of seeing live music at the Congress.

Carranza: We sell out all the time. If people didn’t want to go there, we wouldn’t be selling out!

Q. Let me read you an email I just received while we’ve been talking: “It was about 100 degrees inside, they ran out of water about halfway through the show, and the sound is the worst of any venue I have ever been to, ever. The sound swirls into the 300-foot-high dome, it echoes, it’s terrible. I vowed never to return to that sh*thole.” And it goes on…

Carranza: Fine! Five people, 20 people [complain]—who cares? We’re still selling out shows! The Aragon, the Metro, they all have the same comments I’m sure. I’ll go to Yelp and I’ll see the same crap!

This hearing is not to take away our license. It’s just to address the alderman’s ongoing issues that we’ve addressed. We’re going to go there and say the same things we’re saying to you: We’ve met all the conditions. It’s not like we’re fighting for our license. The alderman wanted a hearing so we can discuss this.

Q. That’s not what the ordnance says a Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance Hearing is; it says it’s a last chance for a venue to correct problems before revocation of its liquor license.

Tristan: I understand. We’re taking this meeting seriously…

Carranza: [To me] I think you’re trying to blow it out of context!

Tristan: No. Look, no one is saying anything different than we’re taking this meeting seriously.

Carranza: If I wanted to sell out to a big corporation, I could call AEG now and they’ll give me a lot of money for it. I don’t care if they give me $100 million. We’re not for sale! But if it gets to the point where the pressure is tough, I will sell it out to AEG and they can take it over and I’ll retire. I don’t care. But I’m not up for sale. I don’t want to sell. I like the business and I like to promote in it. But if the pressure is tough, then yeah, I will sell. I don’t care about the business that much where I’m going to fight it forever. A corporation would love to get into that venue and they would promote it and use it their own way.

Q. How much money do you think the Congress needs right now to make necessary improvements?

Carranza: We’re also talking to some city grants. We’re in the process, in the midst of it.

Tristan: Part of why this is a little disappointing, and the alderman knows, we’re still in the process of making improvements to some of the retail on Milwaukee—things that are going to be good for the community. Again, Eddie reinvests a lot of his money into the business. We’ve made hundreds of thousands in improvements. I know that, Jim, for you, it may not show in the bathrooms, and I get it. We’re not going to change your opinions. But the building was in pretty bad disrepair, the guts of it—things that you don’t see—and there have been some improvements. And we’re going to continue to make them.

Now, that’s not answering your question about what it would cost to make some of these other changes to the infrastructure. It’s something we’re looking at, and we’re not certain right now. I know that the Brooklyn Bowl guys wanted to spend $10 million to build a bowling alley and extend some balconies. He brought in some restoration guy, and they had a grand plan. So $10 million, that’s not the dollar amount that I believe is necessary to make some of the changes.

Carranza: Live Nation, they wanted to turn it into a Fillmore, but even Live Nation, they were not going to put $10 million into it; they were going to put enough into it to get those Chicago Theatre-type acts. But you can fix it up like Chicago Theatre and you’re still not going to get Chicago Theatre acts. The neighborhood might not be appropriate for those acts that would like to go downtown to Chicago Theatre. Because of our neighborhood, we’re a rock ’n’ roll venue. It’s like Aragon. Aragon I don’t think ever will get live theater because of their location. Location plays a big part in what kind of music you promote.

Tristan: Just let me add we’re continuing to make investments in the theater, and not only the storefronts. This isn’t necessarily delaying the process. It’s just sort of a road bump. We want to get past this issue first and resolve it because we want to be good neighbors. Then beyond that there are things we’re looking to address in the next one to three years that perhaps you talk about that would impact fan experience.

Q. One last question: The Congress Theater is partnering with electronic dance promoters React Presents on a two-day festival at Soldier Field in June. Are you concerned that this hearing will impact that festival?

Carranza: How this Deleterious Impact or this hearing would impact an event at a different venue, one that SMG manages… This event will have no impact on Soldier Field.

Q. Drug use is part of the culture of this music. Who will handle security at that event?

Tristan: People are coming to this festival from all over the country. This will bring millions of dollars to Chicago. We will put together a security plan and plan accordingly to address the crowds that are coming.

The Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance Hearing on the Congress Theater is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on April 17 on the eighth floor of City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle.

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