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Downtown Wilmington music venue issued condemnation notice, faces familiar safety and code issues

The former music venue and nightclub property at 208 Market Street has repeatedly run into safety and code compliance issues.
Benjamin Schachtman
The former music venue and nightclub property at 208 Market Street has repeatedly run into safety and code compliance issues.

The building — known over the years as the Blue Eyed Muse, Ziggy’s By the Sea, Hamerjax, Jacob's Run, and other names — was issued a condemnation notice in early June. Inspection documents show the issues are similar to those that shuttered the building as “unsafe” back in 2017 amid a dispute between the tenant and the owner. The current tenant says the issues caught him by surprise — and wants to know why the building was put on the market in such poor condition.

In early June, New Hanover County inspected the building at 208 Market Street and found a host of issues, including mechanical and electrical problems that rendered the building “dangerous to life, health, or other property.”

The county issued a condemnation notice and gave building owner Joseph “Joe” Hou 10 days to provide his plans to bring the property back into compliance. Hou is a longtime local businessman who also owns Szechuan 132 on College Road.

Hou didn’t comply and the county held an administrative hearing on Friday, July 28. The county again gave Hou 10 days — this time to file permits to make repairs, including a master architectural plan. Until he does so, the county considers the building unsafe to enter, except by licensed contractors.

Immediately following the hearing, Hou told WHQR he wasn’t aware the building was in such bad shape.

“I haven’t been down to the building in a long time,” he said, adding that he does plan to file permits to get the building fixed up.

But Anthony Durret, who moved from the Charlotte area to sign a lease for the building last fall, isn’t optimistic. While he isn’t currently being charged rent, he is locked into the lease, and has seen costs to repair the place steadily increase. Without those repairs, Durret can't open for business.

"My intent was to bring something different to Wilmington," Durret said. "The vision was to offer a wedding venue that was different from the norm — giving locals a chance to experience local talent, by the performances of live local bands and groups."

Hou said he had put over $175,000 into fixing the building — Durret clarified it was a line of credit that he could use for ‘upfit,’ but that repairs would cost much more.

“Since last year, we kept discovering new things, I mean, the $175,000 is just the tip of the iceberg,” Durret told WHQR, saying it could be more like $700,000 — including a new sprinkler system that, alone, could cost $150,000.

The lease was initially offered “as is,” but Durret only said he only signed it after it was amended to offer repairs — but the lease agreement doesn't cover the full scope of the repairs that are now deemed necessary.

Durret said he’s frustrated the building was put on the market, noting that the ‘unsafe’ placard from 2017 had been removed, and the information about the building posted on the county’s inspection website didn’t include information about the extent of the building’s issues.

A county spokesperson said “unfortunately, there is no information around how or when the condemnation placard was removed,” and confirmed that “there are fines that can be levied for removing condemnation placards and it is the building owner’s responsibility to ensure these placards are displayed properly once they are issued by the county.”

Eastern Carolina Carolinas Commercial, which handled the lease, declined to comment, saying it was a tenant-landlord issue. Hou told WHQR he had fixed “whatever they had required us to fix.”

But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Back in late September of 2017, about a week after the building — then known as the Blue Eyed Muse— abruptly shuttered, the county sent a letter to Hou listing myriad issues, including multiple problems with plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and building and fire code compliance. That letter indicated Hou would have needed to hire contractors licensed to do multiple kinds of work, as well as an engineer and architect, to reopen the building.

According to the county’s online records, as well as documents requested from the county by WHQR, that wasn’t done. There was just one permit pulled after the failed inspection — a 2019 permit for plumbing. The building has apparently not had a certificate of occupancy since 2017. Comparing the letter the county sent Hou in 2017 with the findings of a 2023 inspection, many of the same key issues have persisted (you can find copies of both at the end of this article).

A county spokesperson confirmed, “a plumbing permit was issued to perform some remedial work in 2019 and that specific item was corrected at the time. Following the 2017 inspection findings, the owner did not pull a permit to authorize work that would address the issues and a certificate of occupancy was not issued.”

Notice of condemnation posted by New Hanover County at 208 Market Street in June, 2023.
Benjamin Schachtman
Notice of condemnation posted by New Hanover County at 208 Market Street.

What’s been going on with the building?

Prior to shutting down in 2017, the building was rented by Damian Brezinski, who operated the space as the Blue Eyed Muse, a popular music venue with a roughly 700-person capacity that filled a gap between larger facilities — like the Hugh Morton Amphitheater at Greenfield Lake and CFCC’s Wilson Center — and smaller clubs.

After the Blue Eyed Muse closed its doors, Brezinski said he had known the building was old — at the time, over 75 years old — and “in rough shape,” but that he had believed he could work with Hou to improve its condition.

At the time, Hou accused Brezinski of being in arrears for contract work, the water and sewer bill, and rent. Brezinksi categorically denied that, and said Hou had failed to work with him to repair issues with the building.

After Brezinski walked away, the building languished. A year later, Hurricane Florence swamped the Wilmington area. It’s not clear how much damage was done to 208 Market St. — but many downtown building, especially older buildings, suffered from flooded basements and leaking roofs. In the months, and years, that followed, mold became an issue for many buildings where remediation efforts didn’t talk place.

A year and a half later, the Covid-19 pandemic hit — shuttering bars, restaurants, clubs, and music venues, and dampening any demand for the space, Hou told WHQR. Finally, about a year ago, he began to look at plans for revitalizing the space and new tenants.

Now what?

Durret said if the building isn’t repaired, he’d like to be let out of the lease and compensated for his time.

Hou said he has every intention of taking care of the building.

“I love that building, you think I don’t love the building? I’m very proud of our downtown area,” Hou told WHQR.

If the building is not brought up to code, it could in theory be torn down — although that would also require a series of bureaucratic approvals, including demolition permits and, because of the age and location of the building, sign-off from Wilmington’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Anthony Durret's name.

Below: County documents regarding the condition of 208 Market Street in 2017 and 2023.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.