ALRC: Orpheum Theatre has been operating without a liquor license
Post by michael donnelly on 6/12/2012 10:00am
Yesterday's special session of the Alcohol License Review Committee was the body's final opportunity to consider liquor license renewals that were separated from the bulk approval of most of the city's licenses at the last regular meeting. At tonight's Common Council meeting, the council must vote on these renewals and non-renewals in order to meet a state deadline.
Because of the amount of material covered - the meeting stretched on for over seven hours - we will break the writeup into two parts. The first covers the Orpheum, Osaka House, Little Manhattan, Taqueria Guadalajara, and Whiskey Jacks.
Orpheum Theatre - 216 State St
Alder Mike Verveer requested separation of the Orpheum's license renewal at the request of the City Clerk. The application was missing the State Seller's Permit number. This was, as it turned out, because the Orpheum does not have a State Seller's Permit number and has been selling alcohol illegally.
The trouble with the Orpheum's licensing dates back to ownership conflicts with the historic theater last year. At the March 2011 ALRC meeting half owner of the Orpheum, Eric Fleming, came before the committee for a change of corporate control. He wanted the Orpheum's license to be transferred from the corporation he co-owned with Henry Doane to a new one he alone controlled. Fleming said Doane was okay with this, but Verveer smelled something fishy and called Doane. When Doane arrived, he said Fleming was lying. The committee denied Fleming's application.
When renewal time came around that June, the Orpheum reared its head again, and Fleming applied for a new license for his new corporation. Fleming and Doane were still fighting for control of the organization, so once again the committee was uncomfortable granting a license to him and de facto wresting control of Doane. After much deliberation, they decided to renew the existing license and give the situation time to sort itself out.
A year, it turns out, was not enough time. Doane appeared and spoke at the meeting, while Fleming, who applied for the license renewal, was not present, so the story is entirely from Doane's point of view. He told the committee that he has not been involved in operation of the Orpheum. "My partner Eric Fleming, in pursuit of total control and dominion of the Orpheum Theatre, created a new company and tried to transfer the business to it. In doing that, he got a new tax ID number and a new seller's permit." Doane believes Fleming has been selling liquor through one company and paying taxes through the other. "I think there's something shady going on," Doane declared. "I think MPD should investigate it. There should be consequences for someone doing something so egregious."
City Alcohol Policy Coordinator Mark Woulf asked Assistant City Attorney Roger Allen if the Orpheum was allowed to sell alcohol without a state seller's permit. Allen said it was not. Acting Committee Chair Tom Landgraf asked, "Is this ripe for review?" Eric Christianson, representative of the City Clerk's office, said that they didn't have any choice; state law requires all renewals to be handled by June 15, so ALRC needs recommendations on all of them before the June 12 Common Council meeting.
Verveer mused that they were in a difficult position. They couldn't renew the license because doing so without a state seller's permit would defy state law, and they couldn't fail to renew it in absence of a complaint from the city attorney's office. He was also concerned about the applicant. "We don't know what Mr. Fleming knows or doesn't know about these proceedings." Verveer asked Doane if Fleming was the only owner of the corporation currently running the Orpheum. Doane, clearly amused by this point, said that Fleming had passed that corporation over to his girlfriend to try to keep it out of the hands of creditors.
Apparently deciding that non-renewal of a void license was the less illegal of two evils, Verveer moved non-renewal. It passed unanimously.
It remains to be seen what will happen next for the Orpheum, since it is apparently serving alcohol without a license and has been doing so for quite some time.
Osaka House - 505 State Street
Verveer requested separation of Osaka House's renewal due to noise issues. When owners applied for a license to open another restaurant, two State Street stakeholders complained about noise from the business.
The restaurant's capacity is only 49, so they don't need an entertainment license to have a DJ on their second floor.
Verveer met with the owner and manager of Osaka House, and they have made changes, including removing speakers, to mitigate the problems neighbors had. "I successfully got the attention of the license holder" with the separation of the renewal application, he said.
Since then, Verveer says, things have been fine. "That's why you don't see people from the community here with us."
The committee approved the license renewal without conditions.
Little Manhattan - 6718 Odana Rd
Little Manhattan was originally scheduled for an evidentiary hearing on Friday, June 8, but the club and City Attorney's office arrived at an agreement to renew the license with several stipulated conditions before the meeting. The ALRC asked Hsiu Ling Chen to confirm that Little Manhattan voluntarily agreed to these conditions.
These stipulations include closing at 1:00 a.m. on weekends, increasing security including adding cameras, and never having DJs or outside entertainment. Little Manhattan's representative confirmed, through an interpreter, that he and his establishment agree to these conditions.
Captain Vic Wahl of the Madison Police Department was asked if the stipulations sufficiently address the MPD’s concerns about Little Manhattan. Wahl said changing the facility’s floor plan, adjusting the entertainment permissions, implementing capacity control devices (such as clicker-counters), and increasing security personnel will all help to eliminate the problems they’ve been seeing.
Alder Lisa Subeck moved to approve this agenda item with the conditions agreed to by the City and the licensee. The committee approved the motion unanimously.
Taqueria Guadalajara - 1033 S Park Street
A neighbor of Taqueria Guadalajara wrote a letter to the ALRC describing a number of issues he has with the restaurant centering on patrons' noisy use of an alley that goes past his house. On behalf of a number of neighbors with concerns, Alder Sue Ellingson requested renewal of the restaurant's license be discussed at this meeting.
No neighbors were in attendance, so Ellingson described their issues. "Some Neighbors have been very unhappy about how this establishment has been run." She said neighbors have described people leaving Taqueria Guadalajara with bottles of beer and significant traffic through the alley. She said they have also complained of trash in the parking lot drawing animals. They have tried to work with the building inspector but hadn't gotten traction with that process. In response to a question from Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, Ellingson said there had not yet been a meeting with neighbors and the owners to discuss the matter.
The owner, who spoke using her daughter as an interpreter, assured the committee that patrons never carry out alcohol and suggested that neighbors may have seeing horchata bottles carried in cardboard beer bottle holders. Bidar-Sielaff asked the owner who uses the alley in question. The owner said the alley is the only way people can get to the parking lot. Subeck asked the owner if preventing patrons from using the parking lot would negatively impact the business. The owner said that would be fine; "People come because they really love the food."
Bidar-Sielaff moved renewal of the license. Because the issues reported were not meaningfully related to the liquor license, she did not suggest any conditions for renewal. It passed unanimously.
Whiskey Jacks - 552 State Street
Alder Bridget Maniaci requested separation of the renewal of the license for Whiskey Jacks based on noise complaints brought against the bar by other tenants in the same building and by property managers.
Maniaci began by stating that the concerns she had about the establishment have been resolved since a special meeting held with bar management a few months ago. She hasn’t received any noise complaints from neighbors in adjacent properties, but there are still ongoing complaints from tenants who share the building with Whiskey Jacks.
Public comment opened with Victor Villacrez, a part-time residential property manager at 556 State Street. In a written complaint and in oral testimony, Villacrez cited a “degraded quality of life for the tenants” that live in the approximately 30 single room occupancy units above the bar. Villacrez says the bar is the sole producer of noise and vibrations in the building.
Villacrez asked if the city can require the bar to add soundproofing as a condition of license renewal. Bidar-Sielaff wondered who should be responsible for paying for that soundproofing. Villacrez said the responsibility should be the establishment, for they are the sole source of the excessive noise.
Verveer asked if Whiskey Jack’s had been responsive to complaints and testimonials that were shared six months ago. Villacrez says he’s seen “spotty” improvement.
One resident of the building spoke in support of renewing the liquor license. He credited a “night and day” improvement on noise issues since when he moved into the building in February 2012. Now, he says, the only noise he hears is when people leave the establishment at bar time; however, he says security does an effective job of dispersing the crowds and disturbances only last five to ten minutes.
Jeff Redd is another building resident, resident manager, and custodian. He reports that noise complaints are no exaggeration, calling it “deafening” and alleging that the noise from below causes mirrors and the tops of toilet tanks to rattle in the bathrooms above. Redd says the only time noise issues improved was after the last meeting held between the bar and the building’s residential tenants, but improvement only lasted a month before the issues resurfaced.
Landgraf asked how often the sound levels are to Redd’s liking. Redd estimated that 50%-60% of the time sound levels are acceptable while the business is in operation. However, he went on to say the Pub, the business that previously operated there, never had these issues.
Gus Paras, owner of the building, spoke next. Paras said Whiskey Jacks was a good tenant in that they pay their rent on time but that he has issues with the bar's noise and the resulting complaints from other tenants. He says he’s had several meetings with bar management about this but that his concerns are only resolved for a short while before they creep up again. He made the distinction that when a band is playing, sound levels are reasonable, but as soon as a DJ takes over the whole building shakes.
Furthermore, Paras alleges that tenants are afraid to go downstairs to complain when noise gets out of hand because they are verbally attacked and threatened. He also stated that when a DJ goes upstairs, the tenants run and hide.
Paras told the Committee, “I’m not here to say, ‘Take their license away,’ but please put a hold on it until these issues are addressed.”
Ald. Lisa Subeck asked Paras if there’s anything in Whiskey River Saloon’s lease that places limits on noise levels. Paras said he didn’t know. Subeck voiced her concern over the fact that Paras, as the property manager, didn’t know what stipulations are in the property lease. Paras said “It takes too much time to read the fine print,” and has a lawyer to navigate the details of the lease for him.
Subeck went on to ask Paras what guidelines he’s setting for his tenants, outside of asking the City to address them. Paras didn’t immediately answer the question, but when Subeck rephrased, he responded, “I don’t think I have any power to fix the problems. I could evict them, but I don’t want to have to do that. It’s not easy to evict a commercial tenant.”
Josh Hurley, the General Manager of Whiskey Jacks, had a chance to respond to these allegations. First, with regards to volume discrepancy between bands and DJs, he said bands and DJs both run on the same exact sound system. The bar does have a jukebox, which runs on a different system.
Hurley went on to say that while bar management held two meetings with building tenants, Jeff Redd didn’t attend either of them. Hurley stated the allegations Redd brought forth today were based on hearsay.
In response to Paras’s contention that tenants were afraid to complain about noise, Hurley says he and bar staff got to know several of the building tenants at their March 10 meeting. While he didn’t know many of the residents before, he says they do now, and for the most part they get along.
Hurley says he and his colleagues are willing to work and cooperate with property management, but management hasn’t been equally cooperative when it comes to setting up and following through with meetings, sharing information as promised, and communicating openly. He says he has tried to restore what used to be a good relationship with Paras, but he says Paras won’t respond to emails in a timely manner or keep in close phone contact.
Maniaci returned to the table and affirmed that Hurley has done everything she’d asked of him with regards to addressing any concerns she’s had. Meanwhile, she just recently learned of noise complaints that took place in February or March. She says if those issues had been brought to the City’s attention, it would have had a legal avenue, through the Chronic Nuisance Ordinance, to do something about it.
“It’s hard to find a proactive solution when you have a party that’s not willing to come to the table,” she said. The applicants have shown up, done cost assessments, and asked property managers to split the costs of building improvements, but property management has supposedly been unresponsive. Until Paras comes to the table to mitigate the issues between him and his tenants, Maniaci says she’s not willing to see conditions put on Whiskey River Saloon’s entertainment license. “The fact that the landlord was not managing the relationships with his tenants in the first place seems a bit silly to me.”
According to Maniaci, these issues are founded in concerns with the building’s physical condition. The building is worth $1.1 million, and the commercial space takes up the entire ground floor. She says investing $33,000 isn’t an unacceptable amount to put the building into a better state of order.
Madison Police Department’s Central District Captain Carl Gloede explained why the police department got involved with Whiskey River Saloon with alert meetings in January and February. He cited a series of issues, including disturbances in the establishment, line-queuing outside the bar, and theft issues, to name a few. After a productive meeting in which they talked through steps to improve matters there, Gloede says MPD has received few noise complaints -- only three in the last six months. Gloede advises that while several calls for police service are tagged to the bar’s location, the bar itself is often used as a landmark and is not in any way tied to incidents that have taken place in the area.
Verveer asked, “Assuming we renew either of your licenses, where do you see the future of Whiskey Jack’s?” Hurley said he and Paras have to sit down and have better communication; it can’t be a screaming match, and they can’t be verbally abusive to one another. Verveer and Bidar-Sielaff have asked Whiskey River Saloon to provide a status update to the Committee in six months, and Hurley obliged. Bidar-Sielaff therefore moved to renew their liquor license with a stipulation that they report back on the progress of the “dialogue” between bar and property management. To this, Verveer added, “I hope, personally, that a solution can be found. I very much appreciate Capt. Gloede’s fairly positive report that the issues addressed earlier have been addressed to the police department’s satisfaction.”
The committee voted unanimously to approve the license.
Cynthia Schuster contributed the sections on Little Manhattan and Whiskey Jacks to this article.
Photo credit: CJ Schmit on flickr
Michael Donnelly (@gomi_no_sensei) is president of dane101's board of directors, covers local politics, and assists Shane with technical management of the site. He also serves on the board of directors of the Tenant Resource Center. Originally from Rhode Island, Michael moved to Wisconsin in 1994 for school and to Madison in 1999 because Madison is excellent. He's been involved in dane101 since October, 2005.