Dixie Brewery owners make final effort to save building

Kendra Bruno has been waiting three years for her day in court. She wants to tell a judge that she and her business are ready to come home. That she’s tired of being in exile in Wisconsin. That Dixie Brewing Co. should once again open at 2401 Tulane Ave.

“We want to be heard,” Bruno said. “That’s all.”

Bruno, who owns the century-old brewery with her husband, Joseph, is hoping today will be that day.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman is expected to decide today whether to convert Dixie’s temporary restraining order into a preliminary injunction that would, at least temporarily, bar the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its contractors, Clark Construction Group and McCarthy Building Cos., from tearing down sections of the building to make room for a research center as part of New Orleans’ new VA Medical Center. The ultimate aim is a permanent injunction that would return the building to the Brunos.

The hearing is the latest roadblock Dixie has thrown in the way of the state and the VA in a three-year bid to get its building back. The state expropriated the building in 2011 and later transferred it to the VA as part of the massive LSU and VA hospital complex.

The dispute, so far, has favored the government, with Dixie losing four attempts in state and federal court in 2011, 2012 and earlier this year to stop the demolition from moving forward.

Feldman turned down Dixie’s request for a preliminary injunction in June.

But the Brunos were able to secure a temporary restraining order from a state court last week, halting demolition just hours before it was to begin. The case was transferred to federal court because Dixie has a related case, challenging the legality of the government’s expropriation of the brewery, pending there.

In its request for a preliminary injunction, Dixie alleges that the VA came to own the building illegally because the state law that allows LSU to expropriate the property also requires that the former owner be given first right of refusal before a property is transferred.

“Neither the VA nor LSU have provided any compensation to Dixie for the expropriation, nor has the constitutionality of the expropriation … been fully and finally decided,” Dixie’s motion reads. “The VA and LSU have ignored the constitutional rights of Dixie, as Louisiana citizens, and acted as though the expropriation has been sanctioned and final judgment has been rendered. It has not.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs has asked Feldman to dissolve the state court’s restraining order, deny any other requests for injunctions and dismiss any claims against the VA. The VA says Dixie, among other things, has not satisfied the four prerequisites for issuance of a preliminary injunction.

“Because Dixie has not shown any likelihood of success on the merits, irreparable injury, favorable balance of harms, or lack of impact on the public interest, the court should dissolve the state-court TRO and deny Dixie further injunctive relief on the merits,” the VA wrote.

The VA also maintains that, as a federal agency, it cannot be sued without congressional approval.

The 1907 brewery’s red-brick building and distinctive silver dome were designed by German-born architect Louis Lehle in a German Romanesque style.

Along with Jax Brewery and Falstaff Brewery, the company was an integral part of the city’s once bustling beer-making industry. It was the last privately run regional brewery in the South before Hurricane Katrina, said Sandra Stokes, a board member for the Foundation for Historical Louisiana.

“The brewery’s landmark building is part of the beer’s branding, as well as a part of the city’s skyline — and the logical home for this New Orleans business,” Stokes said. “While VA can argue that its plans would utilize some portions of the building, preserving a façade isn’t the same as preserving a business with a 100-year history.”

The Brunos have owned the business since 1985, Bruno said. Dixie was last brewed in the plant, which had begun to fall into disrepair, on the Friday before Katrina hit the city in 2005. The storm blew out windows, and the flooding that followed pushed several feet of water into the building, which was not covered by flood insurance, Bruno said. Anything that wasn’t damaged by the wind and water was stolen by looters, she said.

Dixie beer wasn’t available for two years.

The company landed in Wisconsin, after a temporary stop in St. Tammany Parish, because that was the only place that had a space that wasn’t too big or too small for the operation.

Bruno said the state offered $52,285 for the property, which she and her husband rejected.

“That didn’t even compute with me,” Bruno said. “It’s like, ‘No, you took our home. We want to come back.’ ”

The VA has plans to build an advanced bioscience research facility called the Dixie Brewery Research Building on the site. According to renderings, some of the building’s façade facing Tulane Avenue would remain intact, but large chunks would be replaced with modern, glass walls.

“I will probably end up on my knees begging them to walk away and to get something suitable to their needs,” Bruno said. “All we want to do is come home. We want Dixie to come home.”