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Site of former Friends restaurant on the Tchefuncte River in Madisonville. 

The Madisonville Town Council cleared the way Dec. 12 for two local businessmen to repurpose the shuttered Friends restaurant building as a mixed-use facility.

The massive, three-story building has sat unused since early 2017, when the original owners declared bankruptcy and their lender, Investar Bank, purchased the building at a sheriff’s auction.

Greg Lala and Stephen Guidry, who own a growing chain of Dixie RV SuperStores, told the council last month that they wanted to buy the building from the bank, use the third floor as their corporate office, install a high-end restaurant on the second floor, and operate the first floor as an open-air, family-oriented casual food venue.

Mayor Jean Pelloat and council members encouraged Lala and Guidry to pursue the idea, but told them they would need zoning variances to operate the third floor as office space and to reduce the amount of parking that the building would normally require because of its size.

The town’s Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the variances earlier this month, and the council approved them at its meeting.

The variances come with conditions attached, as documented in a resolution negotiated by town attorney Bruce Danner and the partners’ legal counsel.

According to the resolution, the third-floor office space can be occupied by no more than 20 employees, and its hours of use will be restricted to 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. In addition, food service on the first floor will end at 8 p.m.

Those restrictions aim to ensure adequate parking will be available for the main restaurant’s patrons at peak dining times, solving a problem that plagued the original restaurant venture.

The agreement also states the parking variance will terminate if the third floor is no longer used as office space.

Finally, the variance will apply only to Lala and Guidry’s venture and is not assignable to a third party, meaning any future owner will have to renegotiate the variances with the town.

Lala said he and Guidry expect to invest $5 million in the project, beginning with the purchase of the building from the bank by the end of the year.

In other zoning matters, the council approved an application by Mandeville retail entrepreneur Erin Schaumburg to build a new clothing and home furnishings store at 405 Covington St.

Councilmen also discussed the possible annexation of multiple parcels of land northwest of the current town boundary.

Developer Buddy Coate told the council he plans to develop a 40-lot residential subdivision on 27 acres in the area and would like the homesites to be within the town limits. Pelloat said several businesses in the same area also have expressed interest in being annexed.

Longtime resident Gordon Mellencamp said he was against enlarging the town and cautioned council members to carefully weigh whether annexations were in the best interests of current residents.

Council members discussed the possibilities for an hour but took no further action.

In other business, the council authorized Pelloat to accept a proposal by SBA Towers, LLC, which operates a cell tower on town land, to pay $478,000 for a 50-year easement on the land.

Councilman Brad Haddox explained the deal will allow the town to pursue multiple state and federal grants by using the money as matching funds. “We’ll take that money and turn it into bigger money,” Haddox said.

St. Tammany Fire District 2 Chief Randy Hess announced his department’s property fire insurance rating has been raised from a five to a three. Hess encouraged area residents to contact their homeowner insurance providers to see whether the improved rating will decrease their insurance premiums.