Last Call for 3 a.m. Closings

Mediating the city's liquor-license madness is enough to drive an alderman to drink

With so much hope for St. Louis' future riding on more convention business, perhaps it's fitting that the whole damn city is considered one huge convention zone -- at least that was the thinking when the idea of 3 a.m. bar closings was first floated.

Back when the Solomons in City Hall were trying to figure out which bars could stay open past the usual 1:30 a.m. limit, they reached a compromise that designated the whole city -- except for the Central West End bar-and-restaurant strip -- a convention zone. The owner of any bar could get a 3 a.m. license as long as he or she secured the agreement of a majority of property owners, business owners and registered voters within a 500-foot radius of the establishment. To qualify, the bar must also do at least $100,000 of business per year.

St. Louis has about 45 such licensees, concentrated at downtown hotels, Laclede's Landing and along Washington Avenue and sprinkled here and there, says city Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg. There is none in Soulard, but in the sparsely populated Kosciusko district east of Seventh Street, a few late licenses are in place.

That's more than enough places to get a late-night libation, according to Ald. Stephen Gregali (D-14th). Gregali isn't concerned with the livers of local citizens; he's just tired of being drawn into neighborhood brouhahas about extended-hours licenses. So he's introduced a bill that would flip the current approach by identifying certain small areas as convention zones eligible for the 3 a.m. option. Bars already with the license would be grandfathered in no matter where they are, he says. The goal is to avoid contentious disputes when a bar tries to obtain a 3 a.m. license.

"It creates a miniwar between the bar and the neighborhood association," Gregali says. "It's not worth dealing with. No bar in the middle of a neighborhood needs a 3 a.m. license. So the way to do it is to redefine the lines. When you redefine it, my ward will not be part of it."

Even when a bar fails to obtain a permit, an alderman's troubles aren't over. "When they keep reapplying, quite frankly, it's a pain in the butt. My phone rings off the wall. I got the bar calling me saying they want my help," Gregali says. "Other aldermen have the same problem. It's a hassle. Nine times out of 10, the bar won't get the license, but they'll wait and a year later they'll do it again."

Kraiberg says getting the majority of people living around a bar to sign a petition "has a controlling effect. If a place is surrounded by a lot of registered voters, they may not sign for something like that. That's why most of the 3 o'clock licenses you see are in nonresidential areas."

Gregali's bill is still in committee and has a ways to go, but as long as aldermen like Phyllis Young (D-7th) and Lewis Reed (D-6th) can exempt areas downtown, near Lafayette Square and just outside Soulard, most aldermen probably will go with the flow, agreeing with Gregali. "It creates a lot of headaches, a lot of tension," Gregali says of the bar spats. "People get to screaming and yelling at each other; it's ridiculous. I'm going to eliminate that problem."

Maybe that'll be good news to East Side publicans. Perhaps they can change that state slogan of Illinois from "Land of Lincoln" to "Where the binge continues."

POLICE CHAT ROOM BUSTED: Sometimes the most frightening thing about the city police wasn't seeing the cherry top switch on behind you as you drove home from a bar with a 3 a.m. license. No, it was the chat room. Oh Lordy, what some folks typed into that chat room. Most of it was anonymous, some of it was political, some of it was wacky and some of it was just plain ugly. Well, Officer Gary Wiegert, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, has put an end to all that.

"The chat room was a source of embarrassment to me," Wiegert says. "Sometimes it was like reading a bathroom wall. Everybody reads it, but I think it sheds a bad light on our organization. It's our name at the top of the Web site"

So that's it -- the chat room is closed until further notice. The Web site has been a popular place to visit; since Aug. 1, 1998, the site has received more than 104,000 hits. Chances are, many of those hits were from people who wanted to see police take off on some local politician or to vent their frustrations about the most recent charge of police brutality or an officer-involved shooting.

"What made it so attractive was the anonymous stuff. The trouble is that people loved the anonymous stuff," Wiegert says. "Even when a member would send something in and sign his name to it, then anonymous people would come in, and even though they wouldn't attack him by name, we knew who the attack was directed at."

In an attempt to ratchet down the sauciness or weirdness of the anonymous comments, the Web site had "monitors" who could delete entries that were too wild or scurrilous. But, as Wiegert found out, some monitors had their own agendas, and the purpose of a chat room is to get people to express themselves, even though sometimes that posed problems.

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