Johnny Blancher's vision of turning an old Lafayette bank building into a premier downtown entertainment venue is on its way to becoming a reality.
Blancher, whose father founded the wildly popular Rock 'n' Bowl in New Orleans, hopes to replicate their success in Lafayette with the transformation of the old Whitney Bank building at 911 Lee Avenue into a one-stop music hall and bowling alley.
Rock ’n’ Bowl is rolling into Lafayette.
Plans call for having the venue open by next December, in time for patrons of all ages to enjoy during next year's holiday season. He expects the facility to employ 75-100 people once it opens.
Blancher said he plans on creating the same atmosphere as the Rock 'n' Bowl in New Orleans, with nods to the building’s 30-year existence as a bank.
The drive-thru window will be transformed into a window to the kitchen, Blancher said, and the erstwhile financial institution’s current parking lot is the designated spot for some of the facility's bowling lanes. He said he intends to keep as much as the vault area as possible while maintaining safe fire exits.
The 62,000 square-foot building will be able to host events and normal bowling and concert-related activities under the five-story building’s roof. The New Orleans location, which is slightly smaller than the planned Lafayette location, halts normal operations during events and wedding receptions. Blancher said the facility in Lafayette will allow ample space for event-goers and casual customers alike.
“I think that we’re going to get a chance to be a little bigger,” he said.
Blancher said the ceiling above the concert hall and bowling lanes will be removed to give way to balcony suite seating fashioned from old office spaces. The seating, which can be reserved, will provide leeway for gaming opportunities as well as live performance venues.
“They’re kind of in place,” he stated. “I don’t know what I want to move around, but the offices actually gave us the idea for the suites.”
New Orleans’ Rock 'n' Bowl was first located in the second story of a mall. The building, purchased by Blancher’s father, John Blancher, when it was a struggling bowling alley, was initially perched at the summit of a steep 43-step climb.
“You walked up (the stairs) thinking, ‘Oh my God,’” he said. “You could hear something going on, and it was just bizarre. When you got to the top, the whole place opened up.”
The current location on Carrollton Avenue and Earheart Boulevard pays homage to the daunting climb with a long hallway leading to the floor, and Blanchard said the Lafayette location will have the same nod to the business’ native location.
Elevators on the Lee Avenue side will transport parties and event-goers to the ballroom and suite areas, which he share a communal bar area.
Blancher said the top three floors will be rented as office spaces for businesses. He said several people have approached him about leasing office space.
“It would be neat to put some strong tenants in this building,” he said. “I think it’d be great to have because it’s just more development from downtown and more people that want to be downtown and not just be in some sort of strip mall office space somewhere.”
Silvia Bertolazzi, co-owner of Carpe Diem! Gelato - Espresso Bar, said she's looking forward to the arrival of her new neighbor.
“It’s super exciting because it’s probably going to bring a lot of people downtown that don’t usually go downtown,” she said. “This side of town definitely needs more people and more foot traffic.”
Blancher has already met with members of Lafayette’s Downtown Development Authority to ensure the building and business meshes with the long-term goals for downtown development.
“The city, overall, has just been open arms,” he said. “We’re a family venue: We do family parties and the gift that we bring is that you can have your kid’s birthday party or you can have your birthday party; either way, all ages can come.”
Once ideas and sketches are finalized and unnecessary building parts are demolished, Blancher said, he will assemble a “great Lafayette team.”
He noted that the alley’s proximity to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette brings its own perks, providing a pool of potential applicants to fill the 75-100 jobs the alley's opening will create.
“I can’t tell you how cool it is to borrow that brain for a little while while they’re going on to do whatever they want to do, whether it’s continuing to be in the food and beverage business or going on to do something else,” he said.
Between now and December 2017, Blancher said his team will focus on learning what makes Lafayette “tick,” a process that he said is crucial to his business’s success.
“We’re not a cookie-cutter-drop into the next mall that’s going up,” he said. “That’s not who we are. We like to be part of the community. We want to do charitable events; we want to find out what the needs are and play our little part in hosting and helping.”