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Historic Deep Ellum In Crisis Mode As Foundation Pushes For Lawmaker Support

Deep Ellum, a historic neighborhood in the heart of Downtown Dallas, typically teems with diverse music, food and cultural enrichment.

But nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic forced lockdowns on North Texas, owners of Deep Ellum bars, clubs, concert venues and restaurants are reaching the end of their rope and, in many cases, finding themselves unable to survive much longer. 

Now they're asking the state for financial relief.

Deep Ellum

"In a word, terrible," Jeff Brightwell, a partner in Dot's Hop House & Cocktail Courtyard bar and restaurant in Deep Ellum, said when asked what the past year has been like for his business and other venues in the district.

"We were closed for almost seven months, and since we've reopened, we have been limping along."

Brightwell has thousands of square feet in outdoor space, yet he still feels the pain from losing larger crowds that used to circulate throughout his entire business. 

Brightwell launched an open letter in August to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in video form asking the state to pay bars and restaurants the equivalent of what they paid in mixed-beverage taxes from 12 months ago to help keep bars and restaurants afloat as they struggle with reduced traffic and outright closures. 

In the video, Brightwell suggests the future of neighborhoods like Deep Ellum are on the line without some relief to get businesses over what many hope is the last six-month stretch of the coronavirus fight. 

"That wasn't hyperbole on my part, we absolutely stand to lose entire entertainment neighborhoods," Brightwell told Bisnow. "There is a lot of mom-and-pops out there that are struggling, and it's not just the businesses themselves."

Brightwell, along with The Deep Ellum Foundation, launched a new advocacy push this week, asking the state to use its rainy day fund to pay back what bars, stages and other venues paid in mixed-beverage taxes in 2019 to help cover rent and other costs. 

"I think no matter if you are the smallest dive bar or the largest nightclub, there's enough there to at least get several months' rent taken care of no matter who it is," Brightwell said of the 6.7% mixed-beverage tax that his restaurant is expected to pay each year. 

Deep Ellum Foundation Executive Director Stephanie Keller Hudiburg

The pain of entertainment venues and bars like Brightwell's is all too real across Deep Ellum's 400 businesses. To help ease some of the burden, The Deep Ellum Foundation, a consortium that represents businesses and landlords in the district, launched the legislative advocacy campaign in January to encourage returning state and federal lawmakers to take action on behalf of restaurants and bars.  

The foundation rolled out an online campaign to help support its efforts and an online survey of businesses in the area to quantify the real impact the coronavirus has had on Deep Ellum destinations. 

"We believe relief is something that immediately needs to be thought about at all levels of government, and it is something that frankly we are concerned is not currently at the level of urgency that we think it needs to be," Deep Ellum Foundation Executive Director Stephanie Keller Hudiburg said. 

Hudiburg said on average across the district, businesses have lost roughly 50% of their revenue since the start of the pandemic. Some of the more difficult cases involve stage venues and some bars that have experienced revenue drops in the 80% to 100% range. 

"A lot of businesses made it through 2020, and I think people just kind of assumed businesses that were able to stay open are fine now and things are going to start to loosen up," Hudiburg said. "Our big fear is that is really not what we are hearing and that is not the case from the businesses. They took an extreme hit."

The Deep Ellum Foundation worked directly with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to get the Save Our Stages Act incorporated into the omnibus stimulus bill that passed Congress in December, but many entertainment-focused mom-and-pops still need relief. 

The hope is to get state tax relief as well as recognition from lawmakers that other measures need to be considered to quickly get capital in the hands of struggling Deep Ellum businesses. 

"Music venues or places where people tend to gather such as bars and restaurants are really not through this yet," Hudiburg said. "They are still weathering this storm and want to make sure that stays at the top of the minds of all legislators."

The Pinkards of Hidden History DFW tours stop in front of the historic Pythias Building in Deep Ellum.

Before the area became home to concert venues and entertainment, Deep Ellum served as one of the first free economic zones for African Americans in the early part of the 20th century. 

Dallas natives and tour guides Don and Jocelyn Pinkard have spent many weekends in the district educating guests on the Black men and women who historically performed, inspired and ran businesses out of Deep Ellum.

Jocelyn, who runs Hidden History DFW tour with her husband, did find one thing to celebrate this week when discussing the district in the midst of the pandemic.

"I'm so happy that the city of Dallas chose to locate the mega vaccination center just a short distance from Deep Ellum in the central and vibrant area so close to downtown," Jocelyn told Bisnow. "I hope that the location will help the businesses and residents in the area come back quickly."