UPDATE: The Urban Renewal Board has granted DiverseArts a three-month license extension for Kenny Dorham's Backyard, contingent on compliance with the issues described below.
A mainstay of East Austin's African-American cultural scene may soon find itself homeless.
Kenny Dorham’s Backyard – a two-acre outdoor space named for the bebop trumpeter who once lived in Austin's East End – has hosted all-ages concerts, poetry events and film screenings on East 11th Street since March 2005.
But tonight, city staff will recommend to Austin's Urban Renewal Agency that the annual agreement granting the Backyard use of its land be denied. The Urban Renewal Board, made up of citizen volunteers, will then vote on whether or not to renew the license agreement.
The lot that the Backyard occupies, which also houses an unofficial community garden, was purchased with federal funds. Because of this, license agreements – which grant the space rent-free to qualifying institutions for a year at a time – come with strict compliance standards. Gina Copic with Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, says DiverseArts, the nonprofit which maintains the Backyard, has failed to uphold those standards.
Licensees have three requirements, Copic says: to keep the space clean, to submit event permits 72 hours before events take place, and most importantly, to submit monthly income reports.
"Our biggest issue with them right now is maintenance of the property and monthly reporting of program income," Copic says. "They were not reporting regularly last year. That’s one of the reasons why the [Urban Renewal Agency] gave DiverseArts just a six-month license agreement last October, to get them through South by Southwest and then revisit. And then we had to issue a letter of noncompliance in the last 30 days, on all three points."
DiverseArts founder Harold McMillan says the six-month renewal was "out of the blue." He attributes the city’s change of mind to a disgruntled neighbor.
"Someone has been in the habit of making calls, complaining about our maintenance practices," McMillan says. "This is somebody who wants us out so that they can use the space. I can’t say who, for sure."
Other vacant lots in the neighborhood are the true eyesores, McMillan says. "We’re not outside of code at all," he says. "The pressure is complaint-driven."
McMillan says he has support from the office of council member Mike Martinez, as well as local community groups such as the Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association and the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation.
"We plan to do a two-day fundraiser music festival this Friday and Saturday," McMillan says. "I can’t tell you how many calls, emails, and Facebook messages of support I’ve gotten the last few days."
The Urban Renewal Board meets tonight at 6 p.m.