Reprieve for Dorham's Backyard

Harold McMillan's music venue isn't ready for a swan song

Roughly 80 artists, musicians, and East Austin residents showed up at the city's Urban Renewal Board meeting Monday night to learn that the leasing agreement for Kenny Dorham's Backyard, the part-time outdoor music venue on East 11th Street adjacent to the Victory Grill, had been extended to its current holder, DiverseArts Cul­ture Works, through Sept. 30. The agreement gives DACW director Harold McMillan three-and-a-half months to enact a series of maintenance improvements and prepare a strategic plan for the future of the venue, which currently resides on 17,000 square feet of city-owned land.

The venue found itself facing potential peril over the past half-year, as a failure to comply with city expectations had the URB tightening its grip on the space. Typically DACW and McMillan had received yearlong leasing agreements every October, but the one granted last time the two parties met, in September 2013, extended only for six months – through May 30. (McMillan got a one-month extension because of a pressing family issue.)

McMillan said Tuesday he was confident he could have crafted a compelling argument for the venue – named for the famed bebop-era East Austin jazz trumpeter – but the massive arrival of support certainly helped. In addition to the 80 who showed up, McMillan said that more than 200 people sent letters to the city. "They weren't just letters of support, but specific statements saying how these people can be involved to head off any concerns that the city has in those areas," he added. "It would have been very difficult for [the URB] to have voted down the proposal given the presence and the letters."

DiverseArts now has until the end of September to show that it can feasibly improve the aesthetics of the venue before making another appeal for a yearlong licensing renewal. McMillan hopes Monday's meeting suggests a shift in the way the city works with DACW on the space.

"What's stacking up is what the city likes to see: a public-private partnership," he said Tuesday. "It'd behoove the city to be as helpful as they can, legally, given the ordinances and laws that they must live by. If I can exhaust those avenues – those from the people who have shown up and expressed interest – I think it's shaping up to be the kind of thing that the Urban Renewal Board wanted to see, and what I've needed for a long time."

McMillan said he plans to fill out KDB's event calendar by reinstalling the monthly East End Fourth Friday events, opening up a series of monthly jazz showcases, and featuring collaborations between the East Austin Blues Alliance and Austin Blues Society. He added that KDB will host a pop-up East End Juneteenth Blues Fest this Friday and Saturday, with money raised from the weekend going toward capital improvements for the venue.

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