After many months on various types of life support, Steve and Polly Hoganson made the difficult decision last month to pull the plug on Zoey’s Cafe, the family business that had become home to fledgling singer-songwriters, obscure touring indie bands and young punks. As those who played and patronized the venue continue to grieve, they’re also asking questions about the viability of a thriving music scene in Ventura and the city’s role in supporting it.

“After eight years as a proprietor,” said Polly Hoganson, “I’ve come to the conclusion that Ventura has a lot of growing to do when it comes to understanding and supporting original live music.”

She is not alone. Considering that the city has been attempting to leverage the wealth of talent in Ventura for marketing and identity purposes, it would stand to reason that there is ample civic support for entertainment venues, be they restaurants, bars or dedicated music rooms. But not all downtown proprietors are feeling the love.

“It’s hard to work under the regulations and restrictions downtown,” Says Jonny Reese, owner of Amigo’s Surf Cantina, which has been open for one year and offers live music most nights. “I’ve had nights where I’m wall-to-wall and I lost $200.”

“There are an awful lot of fees,” says Kate Sumner, owner of It’s All Good, a bar and music venue across the street from Amigo’s. She says city taxes on her alcohol purchases alone cost approximately $1,800 per year. Plans to add a second bathroom to her establishment (downtown is sorely lacking public restrooms) had to be scrapped, not due to construction costs but because of $19,000 in permit and architecture fees that she found cost-prohibitive. Combined with high rent and declining foot traffic, which she blames on the opening of The Collection in Oxnard, Sumner says she was left with no choice but to let go of staff recently in a last-ditch effort to keep the business operating while she tries to sell it.

Another obstacle facing establishments that provide musical entertainment is noise. The close proximity of homes to the downtown business district has necessitated tightly enforced restrictions, the most troublesome being the closed-door rule. In order to possess an entertainment permit, business owners must keep their doors closed when music is being played. This can create a somewhat uncomfortable environment in close quarters and is seen as a deterrent to potential patrons. Some proprietors have also complained that the rule either doesn’t apply to all venues or isn’t enforced fairly.

Reese, who has owned successful venues in Santa Barbara and in Tempe, Ariz., says that music emanating from venues with open doors creates a lively, exciting ambience that attracts patrons, but even when he had an artist playing acoustic flamenco music at noon, he was told by law enforcement to close his doors. Closing the doors made the room stuffy, so he spent a substantial amount of money having windows installed only to be told that if there was music playing, he had to close the windows, too.

“We are supposed to be an entertainment district,” says Sumner. The Hogansons agree. “As it relates to the music business, the city needs to put their money where their mouth is and create an honest-to-goodness arts and entertainment district, pure and simple,” wrote Polly in an email to VCReporter.

“I think [downtown] has the potential to be an entertainment district,” says Community Development Director Jeffrey Lambert. “Downtown has evolved — 20 years ago it wasn’t an issue. Our goal is to try to allow and encourage live music but also monitor that so it doesn’t create a nuisance or disturbance.”

Part of that monitoring includes a noise study that was released in September by Neighborhood Preservation, a code enforcement arm of city government. Conducted by Nate Seward of Criterion Environmental Inc. between early-June and mid-August of this year, decibels were measured in front of downtown music venues as well as in nearby neighborhoods where noise complaints have been concentrated.

The study found that much of the noise downtown can be attributed to motor vehicles, and while every music venue did exceed acceptable decibel ranges to some degree, the sound coming from Watermark’s W20 Lounge was likely most responsible for residential noise complaints.

“The open roof construction and window/balcony design of the Watermark building, as well as a lack of structural interference between music emanating from the third-floor balcony/bar and the neighborhood, appear to be the primary factors for the directional sound reaching the hillside properties along Buena Vista/Poli,” the report stated. The lowest noise levels relating to music were recorded in front of Zoey’s and The Tavern.

Though Hoganson, Reese and Sumner told VCReporter that the closed-door restriction is not fairly enforced — a discrepancy which may be explained by stricter rules for newer venues — Lambert told VCReporter that the city is in the process of leveling the playing field.

Downtown venues also face strict regulation of alcohol permits. In 2009, the city decided that no one younger than 21 could occupy an establishment selling alcohol after 10 p.m., even if food was being served. It was a move that effectively killed the all-ages local music scene, which many believe is essential to a healthy entertainment district. Currently, new businesses with new alcohol permits are not allowed to offer happy hours or drink specials, and everything from their signage to their print advertising and social media is monitored to enforce compliance. Reese says he tried to promote a “two tacos and a Tecate” special but was reprimanded for it. Sumner says, “I always feel like I’m a criminal owning a bar because I’m serving alcohol.”

Assistant Police Chief David Wilson stands by these regulations, saying that drink specials can lead to overserving, which law enforcement takes very seriously. “There are certain conditions and rules placed on a business because Ventura has one of the highest concentrations of alcohol licenses in the county and even the state. We have our work cut out for us so we try to work with the businesses and make sure they are responsible,” he said.

According to Wilson, the majority of people arrested for DUI in Ventura had their last drink at a downtown establishment before getting behind the wheel. And because alcohol consumption is such an issue downtown, both he and Lambert told VCReporter that a dedicated music venue serving alcohol but no food (similar to a smaller-scale Ventura Theater) will never be allowed downtown, entertainment district or not.

So, assuming the city wants to be an arts and entertainment destination, which Lambert says it does, what needs to be done to bring that goal to fruition? Hoganson has a hefty to-do list:

“Create an arts and entertainment district and establish rules that apply to all establishments that choose to offer any kind of music be it live or recorded/DJ. Patrons need to change their mindset and realize good music needs to be paid for. Do more outreach to the folks that live downtown. [Establish] a good transportation system that doesn’t just run during the day. Permit busking. Offer up the parks to music promoters at reduced fees. Find city monies to foster more art and music programs. Involve our school district and offer places for their young bands to play.”

“The regulations need to be loosened,” says Reese. “Musicians and venues need to be supported by all of the city and the police department. When you walk down the street you want to hear music. If they hear it they might come in. Do you want your downtown to sound like motorcycles and car stereos or do you want it to sound like a vibrant restaurant music scene like Austin or Santa Barbara?”

While they do plan to find a way to continue their Ones to Watch Singer-Songwriters competition, the Hogansons aren’t exactly salivating at the idea of a future reboot. “We have no desire to operate a music venue in Ventura,” said Polly. “Zoey’s was very special to a lot of people, but was taken for granted as being a Ventura institution that would be here forever.  But ask your readers when was the last time they came out to a show, had dinner and enjoyed a night at Zoey’s?  Right. There’s our answer. We do want to thank the folks who did come on a regular basis and also our staff.  We had a good thing going for a while. For now we plan on putting ourselves first for a change and taking some time to enjoy life and a little music.” 

There will be a benefit to help Polly Hoganson pay some hefty medical bills on Sunday, Nov. 24 at Bombay Bar from 3 p.m. to midnight. Entertainment will include The White Buffalo, Meiko, Timmy Curran, Seth Pettersen, Shane Alexander, Todd Hannigan, Justine Bennett, Xoc and Roger from Rey Fresco and more.