The bar and restaurant manager looked out the window and asked, “What do you see wrong with this picture?”
Outside two young men were walking to a pickup truck, the driver holding an open beer bottle as he unlocked his driver side door and got in. They quickly drove out of the parking lot.
“I see where he walked out from,” the manager said. “That’s the problem here. Some of these places aren’t following the rules and are out to make a quick buck.”
“Here” is a three-block section of North Main Street in St. Charles’ Historic Downtown District from Clark Street to Jefferson Street. City officials have moved to regulate the area in recent months because of concerns about crime, drugs, vandalism and late-night misbehavior, including public urination. Local residents, city councilmembers, police and even bar owners say the situation has been ongoing for the last few years. At one time, 18 bars and restaurants held liquor licenses.
Prompted by concerns expressed by residents and police, the City Council is seeking solutions. A proposed ordinance designed to regulate noise from amplified music on patios and after midnight was dropped in July. A separately proposed ordinance would force bars and restaurants to stop selling alcohol past 11 p.m.
Restaurant and bar owners along North Main have strenuously fought the early closing proposal, saying it would force many of them to close their doors and/or compete less successfully with other bars in other parts of the city, including the nearby Ameristar Casino. City officials and bar and restaurant owners have been meeting to come up with alternatives to that bill, the latest of which still is being refined and debated before the council.
Councilmembers, on Sept. 4, said they plan to vote on a new proposed liquor control ordinance as early as Sept. 25. That bill is sponsored by councilmembers Bart Haberstroh, Rod Herrmann, John Hanneke, Bridget Ohmes and David Beckering.
Councilmember David Beckering, who has worked extensively on the bill, said this week that the bill would set up a liquor commission made up of the city’s police chief, director of community development and director of finance. Bars would be required to adhere to a point system with penalties for various infractions.
Allowing a person to leave the bar with a drink would be 1.5 points, he said. Gambling, homicide and drug offenses would cost 3 points, homicides and weapon violations would cost 3.5. If a restaurant or bar tallied 1 to 2.5 points in a six-month period, employees would have to go through training, Beckering said. A bar’s license could be revoked if 6.5 points or more are tallied.
The license also could be revoked if at least 50 percent of the establishment’s gross receipts are for food. The current standard is 50 percent or $200,000. In the proposed ordinance, the dollar amount was eliminated. If approved, the 50-percent requirement would become effective Jan. 1, 2019; however, “We won’t measure it until June 2020 when their next license will be up,” Beckering said.
Also eliminated from the ordinance was a limit on the liquor licenses that could be issued along North Main.
‘Something has to be done’
Beckering said he has encouraged bar and restaurant owners to pay for cleaning up after Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. “The owners should get together and hire a company to clean up [the area] and voluntarily provide funding for security and police overtime.” But he agrees with bar owners that the “city bears a pretty significant part of the blame for the position we are in.”
The South Main Historic District only allows one liquor license for every 25 businesses and nearby Frenchtown north of North Main allows just one for every 15 businesses. North Main was designed to be a “mixed-use historical district” but over time restaurants turned into nightclubs and the area became what bar owners now call an “entertainment district,” Beckering said. He said he’s not blaming the bar owners.
“Here’s what’s happening: 2,800 people are coming out of those bars at 1:30 in the morning,” he said. “People forget that St. Charles is a very small city … we don’t have 800 police officers.”
In the past two years, crime on North Main has become a public safety issue, Beckering said. “We can’t fix it by throwing more police officers at it,” he added. “That’s not the solution.”
The city has to learn how to handle the situation or face losing its reputation as a welcoming area, he said, which could impact convention and visitor business. “Once we lose that reputation, it is really, really hard to get it back,” Beckering said.
St. Charles Mayor Sally Faith said the city is moving in the right direction but noted that “everybody is not going to be happy.” She said police worked with bar owners for a year and a half and “nothing happened.” She also said she’s been on North Main after 11 p.m. and noticed some overcrowding at bars. “That’s a safety issue,” she said. “Something has to be done.”
Meanwhile, North Main business owners and their management staff agree that there are some “bad apples” on the street but that some disturbances and misbehavior always will happen when liquor is involved.
“There are always going to be problems,” said A. J. Felder, the manager of Big A’s, who has worked there for 17 years. Big A’s has been on North Main for 29 years. “There were problems when there were four places down here.”
Big A’s is more of a dining-driven business that draws families as well as bar hoppers, Felder said. He noted that local law enforcement is good but problems emerge when bars don’t enforce the rules.
Eric Sohn, manager of Quintessential Dining and Nightlife, said “This street is extremely safe. It’s beyond safe. There was a weapon discharged by Tony’s Place [a restaurant across the street] and police were there in a second and made an arrest. The police do a phenomenal job down here. This street, in my opinion, is a lot cleaner than three or four years ago.”
Bar owners and managers say their customers are diverse and vary in age, ranging from college students to business professionals to older adults. Sohn said it’s a misnomer that 21- to 25-year-olds are the only problem.
“The 21- to 25-year-old kids are not the people who walk out with open containers,” Sohn said. “You know who it is? It’s the 40-year-old woman, who feels like she’s entitled to do anything she wants. Do you know who is going to pee? It’s when you see a wedding bus on a Saturday and you see 25 guys get off with Bud Light cans in their hands and they think they can drink anywhere on the street. They are the ones who are going to pee [on the street] because they have been on the bus for last 30 minutes.”
Sohn and other bar owners and managers are worried about how police and authorities will review the proposed point system.
Recently, a drunk who refused to leave ended up running up to Sohn and punching him in the face. Under the new point system, the restaurant would have been assessed two points. “We did nothing,” Sohn said. The drunk called 911 three time because he was mad that he couldn’t get back into the bar. “You can’t control everything.”
La Tia & Pancho’s Catina & Grill, operated for 2.5 years by Gen Walsh Kaufmann, is one of the North Main establishments that close at 10 p.m. Hers is a family establishment and her food business is good.
“We sell a lot of margaritas but it’s not a hangout for bar drinkers,” Kaufmann said. “It doesn’t affect us, I don’t need to stay open for a couple of bucks more.”
Still, she and staff often stay until midnight to clean up or work on reports. “Sometimes, I’ll sit in the front window just observing with my margarita,” Kaufmann said. What she sees late at night are a lot of young people but she said she hasn’t seen many problems or fights.
Coming to a consensus
The people speaking up at council meetings are varied and many offer a warning.
They agree that something needs to be done, but while some support a strong new approach, others want the city to use the laws it already has on the books before cracking down with more severe measures.
James Reid, who owns substantial property along South Main and some property on North Main, complimented the council and city for trying to solve the problems.
“They have not been properly addressed over a number of years and things have gotten out of hand,” Reid said on Sept. 4. “But I’m very concerned that you are potentially moving toward a draconian solution.”
As a property owner, Reid said he is concerned about potentially rising vacancy rates caused by restaurants and bars not being able to meet the conditions set out in the new liquor control ordinance. It may take seven to 10 years for area real estate to recover, he said, if businesses are lost.
Rents may drop, affecting the value of the buildings and prompting property owners to appeal the assessed valuation of buildings, which could lower property taxes, he said. “That means the kids of our city will be punished because the tax rate is going to drop … and the city is going to lose sales tax, estimated as high as $20 million annually.”
Reid said the city may already have the laws to address the problems and clean them up. He suggested putting the proposed bill in abeyance for six to nine months while undertaking a heavy crackdown.
“You need to crack down heavily on these overloaded bars,” Reid said, concerning the number of people allowed inside some of them. “It’s a danger to human life.”
He added that the city needs to crack down on underage drinking and drinking in parking lots, which is not the bars’ fault because people are drinking their own beer.
On Sept. 4, North Main bar owners and the city council urged city staff to hold one more meeting with bar and restaurant owners to clarify the proposed liquor control ordinance before the council votes on it, potentially at its Sept. 25 meeting.
Chris Marshall, the owner of Llywelyn’s Pub, said the ordinance is complex and businesses need to be sure how it will affect them. Complex or not, Douglas Hon, pastor of Main Street Church, spoke in strong support of the bill.
“We need to keep refreshing our vision of what our community should and could be,” Hon said. The front of his church was struck and damaged by an “overserved” driver and, on three mornings outside the church, he’s found intoxicated women still in their cars with their windows rolled up on hot days.
“There is no reason churches, restaurants – even those who stay open late and serve alcohol – and residents cannot live in harmony,” Hon said. “But we need the tools to make this happen and I think this legislation gives the community and particularly law enforcement the tools they lack now.”