Tuesday, April 7, 2009

CLEANING UP THE JIGSAW MESS

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2009 at 9:16 AM

63f8/1239111055-lara.jpgThings are settling down in the Agora Theater and Ballroom end of the Jigsaw fiasco ("The Jig Is Up,” March 18). Agora owner Hank Loconti says Jigsaw owners Phil Lara and Terry Buckwalter are no longer involved with the operation of the legendary Agora.

Buckwalter and Lara, technically, remain partners in a corporation the three formed in October to run the Agora. And Loconti is working with Buckwalter to make good on some of the debts the Agora accumulated over Lara’s tenure, including vendor bills, paychecks, and the Black Keys’ $50,000 payday for two sold-out concerts in January. Tired of waiting for payment, the group sued in March. Buckwalter, a Pennsylvania anesthesiologist, is paying the band $5,000 a week until the debt is paid.

“I took over the operation,” Loconti says. “We split mainly over the Black Keys, and the fact that it took so long [to pay the band]. That’s not how you do business. … Terry has made a personal commitment to try his best to clean up as best as he possibly can. He is doing what I consider the honorable thing. He is working hard to solve as many problems as he can.”

But Lara and the staff he imported haven’t been running the Agora for three weeks. Loconti reinstated the show booker Lara had ousted.

Lara and Buckwalter bought the Jigsaw in December 2007. In summer 2008, they made substantial downpayments on Lakewood’s Hi-Fi Concert Club and downtown rock club Peabody’s, but quickly defaulted on payments. The distinct Agora deal began in October, just as the credit crunch cut the businesses’ life line.

A 43-year nightlife-business veteran, Loconti acknowledges that the deal he entered — in which he relinquished much management power — was “a bad move. Or, it was a good move, had they been able to follow through with the plan we had. Sometimes, you think you need something bad enough, you’re willing to give something up. Maybe I didn’t do [the research] I needed to do.”

When things stared going badly, personal and legal considerations kept Loconti from speaking up sooner. “When you have a business, you just can’t change the locks and lock your partner out,” he says.

At the time of this post, the Agora had announced only two new shows since Lara’s short-lived March coup: a ZZ Top tribute group and Cleveland bar veterans the Alan Greene Band. Loconti says he’s had to pay for some national shows in advance —a highly unusual arrangement — but booking agencies are respecting his overall history.

“This is still not over,” Loconti acknowledges. “I want to help Terry. I believe he wants to do the right thing.”

Parma’s Jigsaw Saloon and Stage remains closed. Buckwalter and Lara say they plan to pay off its outstanding licensing and tax fees, talk to industry consultants, evaluate its payroll debts, and make good on them. They say the restaurant and nightclub will reopen, possiby within 30 days. Both men say Lara will not be actively involved in managing the Jigsaw when it reopens — and claim that he never was, which many former employees would dispute. Still, they maintain that poor management and untrustworthy employees are the reason the decades-old tavern closed after they owned it for 14 months.

“We’re taking responsibility to the fact that we overspent,” says Buckwalter. “We were the ones who decided who would be paid what and who was going to do what. It’s our fault we were overspending and trusting too much on people to come through because they cost more. It got to the point when the credit dried up, that [it’s] unsustainable. So hopefully it can be restructured to where everybody can win.” — D.X. Ferris

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