This city spent $16.5 million in taxpayer money to revive an iconic Black nightclub. Now they need someone to run the place

They spent $16.5 million in taxpayer funds to revive an iconic Black landmark – the old Sunset Lounge – and now West Palm Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency wants to hire its proprietor.

This week, the city extended its application deadline until May 11 for an owner to take over the Lounge’s 12,308-square-foot building at 609 Eighth St. The previous deadline, a two-month application window that ended April 6, came and passed without a single applicant, says Genia Baker, the CRA’s project manager.

The skeleton of the nightclub has already taken shape along North Rosemary Avenue, and construction crews this week began landscaping and laying parking lot asphalt. A jazz-inspired Heart & Soul Park, one block south on Seventh Street, ties the project together with public art and a green space meant for future concerts and festivals.

The Sunset Lounge – known as the “Cotton Club of the South” during its 1950s heyday – is set to reopen at the end of 2022 with a ground-floor restaurant, a second-floor stage and ballroom, a third-floor mezzanine and a rooftop garden bar and patio. Meanwhile, the club’s new 7,200-square-foot addition on its east side will house the restaurant’s kitchen, public bathrooms, as well as dressing rooms, offices, a box office and lobby. V Starr, the design firm owned by tennis star Venus Williams, has been tapped to design the Sunset Lounge’s interior, which will include historic images and a retro red-green-brass color scheme.

A hard-hat tour of the new Sunset Lounge, an iconic Black nightclub north of downtown West Palm Beach. The city of West Palm Beach has spent $16.5 million in taxpayer money restoring the nightclub to its former heyday, when it hosted legends like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

But the focal point will be its dance floor and lounge, which at peak popularity hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, A-listers who toured segregated South Florida in the ‘50s and ‘60s on the Chitlin Circuit. The revival of the Sunset will function much the same way: a magnet for high-caliber R&B, contemporary jazz, rap, reggae and Latin fusion artists to perform, says Christopher Roog, the CRA’s executive director.

The larger aim behind the project – and why the city spent millions to transform the Sunset Lounge – is to spark a neighborhood revival north of downtown and use its history to drive more Black tourism, Roog says.

“The way to do that is by re-creating what Sunset Lounge look and felt like in its heyday,” Roog says. “This building means so much to the community living around it, who heard a lot of these world-class acts. So we had to have community involvement baked into every step of the project.”

When the resurrected Sunset Lounge reopens later this year, it will have a ground-floor restaurant and dance floor, a second-floor stage and ballroom, a third-floor mezzanine and a rooftop garden bar and patio. (City of West Palm Beach CRA / Courtesy)

But the decision when to reopen the Sunset Lounge is largely dependent on how fast the CRA can hire a new proprietor to handle the interior design, pick a cuisine, hire chefs and waitstaff, and book high-caliber music acts. The new operator won’t be paid a salary; instead, they’ll earn a percentage of nightclub profits.

So why spend $16.5 million transforming a property first without knowing who would run it? Roog says that plan was already baked into the Sunset Lounge project. And the building, which the CRA bought in 2016, first needed community input from the neighborhood who remembered it best.

“It’s hard to nail down an opening date without an operator. We’re trying to create some buzz about that,” Roog says. Still, he adds, “It was important to get the construction going first because historic refurbishment takes a long time, and we didn’t want to solicit a new proprietor too prematurely.”

The Sunset pulsed as a premiere nightclub from the 1930s until the 1970s. From the moment Dennis and Thelma Starks debuted the Sunset Cocktail Lounge, they set classy standards for the club, from decorum to dress code.

Ike Robinson, a West Palm Beach city commissioner from 1999 to 2015, moved to the Historic Northwest neighborhood in 1962. A frequent flyer of the Sunset, he remembers grooving to James Brown and Martha and the Vandellas, and local acts like soul singer George McCrae (who had an international 1974 hit, “Rock Your Baby”).

Genia Baker, the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency’s project manager, gives a hard-hat tour of the newly restored Sunset Lounge in the city’s Historic Northwest District on Thursday, April 14. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“[The Sunset] was the Savoy of the Chittlin Circuit,” he says. “If a profane thing came out of your mouth, Mr. Starks would say, ‘Young man, we don’t do that here,’ and if you did it a second time, you got banned. We knew we had to respect everyone inside. And Mr. Starks challenged us to take that mindset out into the community.”

In recent decades, as the Sunset Lounge faded from glory, the nightclub and the Historic Northwest neighborhood around it sank into violence and neglect. In 2006, for example, the nightclub was the backdrop for a deadly shooting, and residents at the time claimed the neighborhood’s changing character made them afraid to venture outside at night.

It is that same class and decorum that the restoration of the Sunset Lounge should evoke – and what its future proprietor should want – says Genia Baker, also a former resident of the Historic Northwest neighborhood.

“It’s the jewel and it’s the heart of the community,” Baker says.

An archival photo of the old Sunset Cocktail Lounge in West Palm Beach, a Black nightclub the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency has spent $16.5 million to revive. (City of West Palm Beach CRA / Courtesy)

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