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Downtown club lacks ABC permit

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This online ad for Blanches Bistro was posted on Favcebook.

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A downtown nightclub advertising a cash bar without a liquor license is linked to two city councilmen and a local judge.

Online ads created and distributed late last year by Cooper Blackwell, son of Councilman Reuben Blackwell, promote a cash bar or cover charge at Blanche's Bistro, located at 116 Tarboro St. in downtown Rocky Mount.

The property was gifted to Virginia Knight, mother of Councilman Andre Knight, in April 2015 by Garland Clark, a city employee. The deed was prepared by Superior Court Judge Lamont Wiggins, who was a city councilman and practicing attorney at the time.

The building's certificate of occupancy is filed under the name Lula's. An ABC permit for the premises listed under that name expired Feb. 3, 2017. No other current permits exist.

Without a permit, alcohol can't be served even as free drinks with a charge at the door, said Terrance Merriweather, deputy director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Merriweather, who has direct oversight of permitting and audits, is the former head of the Alcohol Law Enforcement Branch of the State Bureau of Investigation.

Merriweather said he's forwarded information about Blanche's to his law enforcement partners in the area.

"We take these matters very seriously," said Zander Guy, chairman of the state ABC commission.

Reuben Blackwell, a pastor at a church in his native Roxboro, is the CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Center. Knight serves as the chairman of the OIC board and president of the Rocky Mount branch of the NAACP.

Wiggins declined to comment when asked about the matter.

Detailed emails to Councilman Blackwell and emails, texts and phone calls to Knight weren't returned by presstime.

"$5 entry free food free drinks before 10:30," the younger Blackwell posted Nov. 5 on social media. Other posts with images of sensual women posed provacatively offer "$5 in advance $10 at door" and "free food + free drinks $5 entry before 10:30 Thirstdays at Blanche's."

A woman who asked not to be identified attended two events at the location in November.

"At the parties there was a charge to get in and people provided alcohol," the woman said.

Tickets for Blanche's have been sold via Eventbrite, a popular ticketing website. A State Privilege License and License Tax are applicable to most businesses in North Carolina. Licenses are issued annually and should be applied for before the commencement of any business activity. Operation of a regular and ongoing event could constitute a business requiring taxation, according to the state Revenue Department's License and Excise Tax divisions.

The Telegram requested information from City Hall regarding fire department inspections and permits for 116 Tarboro St. City employees said requests from the Telegram for such information — readily available to anyone else — had to be made to the city's communications office, which answers directly to City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

The scenario is similar to a July 2017 situation in which the Telegram asked city building inspectors about night work being done at 116-118 Washington St.

The inspectors were helpful until Knight was identified as the owner of the property.

Certain work is required for Knight to keep the Washington Street property. He's been given another year to bring the building up to code by Downtown Renaissance Inc.

Originally agreeing in July 2017 to make major improvements to the building within 180 days of the purchase, Knight stopped work when the Telegram inquired about permits for the property.

With no mention of the 12-page Rehabilitation Agreement with Downtown Renaissance, Knight transferred the deed to his mother in February 2018. Wiggins was the attorney of record.

In December 2018, Knight and Downtown Renaissance were added to the deed and Knight was given until Dec. 31 of this year to satisfy the terms of the original deed agreement.

Back property taxes on 116 Tarboro St. total $1,266. Taxes owed for 116-118 Washington St. total $48.43, according to the Edgecombe County Tax Office.

The buildings on Washington Street open to a back alley shared with Blanche's Bistro. The alley is used as a courtyard for the bistro, according to photos shared on social media.

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