Sobering thought: New legislation could make it difficult to get a drink on Cherokee Street

Cherokee Street

Like many young entrepreneurs who've invested in Cherokee Street, Will Liebermann concedes that the neighborhood has yet to take off like other hot spots in the city. Still, the 33-year-old developer remains optimistic that change is around the corner.

In the past two years, Liebermann estimates he and other rehabbers have renovated 100,000 square feet of building space, bringing new residents and businesses to the mix of ethnic stores and restaurants that dot Cherokee Street.

"We've added a record store, and we're really excited about our new dry cleaner," boasts Liebermann. "Next, we'd like a florist. A neighborhood bar or two would also be great."

That last part of the equation, though, may take a while, thanks to Alderman Craig Schmid's new liquor-control proposal for the district. Since the mid-1990s the longtime south-city alderman has required that any new tavern opening in his 20th Ward earn at least 50 percent of its revenue through food sales.

On May 9 Schmid introduced a new bill to the Board of Aldermen that would reduce the food sales quota to 35 percent for bars along Cherokee Street. The legislation adds a litany of other conditions that Liebermann and other members of the Cherokee Station Business Association say make the new liquor ordinance more restrictive than the last. Those provisions include requirements that new bars provide a minimum of fifteen spaces of off-street parking, limit their operations to midnight on weekdays and hire outside security if their occupancy exceeds 100 people.

The bill also mandates that tavern owners install exterior video cameras to allow law enforcement authorities — along with Schmid — to monitor the exterior of the bars 24/7 via the Internet.

Jason Deem, past president of the business association, says the bill came as a complete surprise. "We'd heard anecdotally that the alderman was reviewing the ordinance with neighborhood groups. But you'd think he would come to the business association before presenting it to the Board of Aldermen. We're the ones most impacted by the legislation."

On May 15 Deem invited Schmid to an emergency meeting of the association to discuss the ordinance. The gathering attracted some 40 disgruntled business owners and residents who quickly peppered the alderman with questions and complaints about his proposal. "To the degree that some people wish that I would have done things differently, I say, 'I'm sorry,'" Schmid told the crowd.

The two-hour meeting ended with Schmid agreeing to delay passage of the bill for 90 days, but he stopped short of promising any changes to the bill. Schmid notes that he's one of eleven aldermen who've imposed alcohol-control ordinances in their wards and maintains the legislation has gone a long way to clean up neighborhoods and keep tavern owners honest.

"We had an incident a few years ago where a drunk was kicked out of one bar and walked across the street to another and kept drinking," Schmid recalls. "Later he stumbled out of the tavern and stabbed a man to death. A few years later we had a group who tried to open a bar against the wishes of their neighbors. They were forging residents' signatures to get their liquor license."

Deem agrees that bar owners need to be accountable for their actions, but argues that Schmid's stance creates two very opposite jurisdictions along Cherokee Street — parts of which lie under the control of Ward 9 Alderman Ken Ortmann.

"My opinion is that there is no need for a liquor moratorium," posits Ortmann. "I've explained my position to Craig. We already have sufficient state and city laws that deal with alcohol sales. I don't see the need for further legislation."

In August, south-city resident Mike Glodeck plans to open Foam, a small coffee shop and pub at the corner of Cherokee Street and Jefferson Avenue that will be the area's first new drinking establishment in recent memory. Glodeck says he made sure his building was in Ortmann's ward before he purchased the property last year.

"I think most everyone is aware of the moratorium and hopes it will change," comments Glodeck. "No one wants a pub occupying every storefront, but to have a handful up and down the street wouldn't be a bad thing."

On the south side of Cherokee Street — in Schmid's ward — saloon owner Steve Smith is hoping the alderman will soon ease his liquor policy. Smith, who owns the Royale Food & Spirits in the Tower Grove South neighborhood, purchased a building last fall at the corner of Cherokee and Iowa streets that he plans to renovate into a bar.

At the May 15 meeting Smith told Schmid that a 35 percent food quota would be difficult to meet. "We serve lunch and dinner at the Royale and brunch on Sunday," said Smith. "Our meals have even been featured on Food Network, but still our food receipts account for just 31 percent of our business."

Bar owners aren't the only ones fed up with Schmid's liquor law. Betty Halloran, owner of the Cherokee Street embroidery store Personalized Mementos, says that a few watering holes might make the street more secure. "You come down here after 7 p.m., and it's dead," says Halloran. "The more activity we have down here at night the safer I think it would be."

Schmid says he modeled his ordinance after similar laws in University City, which require businesses to sell 50 percent food in order to receive a liquor license. The suburb also has a separate provision of its liquor law that allows bars and restaurants to sell unlimited amounts of alcohol provided they exceed $275,000 in annual food sales.

Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards says he was contacted by Schmid last year to discuss how the U. City laws have affected his restaurant. "I can see both sides of the argument," says Edwards. "A lot of people blame the demise of Gaslight Square to lax liquor policies. People could open a place without much money. If the business did well, the owner usually ran a decent bar and obeyed the rules. If it didn't, they'd open the floodgates to anyone – minors and brawlers. The district went downhill pretty rapidly after that."

Edwards suggests a compromise might be for Schmid to alter his bill so that it places a minimum dollar amount on food sales instead of basing it on a percentage of a bar's total revenue.

In the meantime, developer Will Liebermann says Schmid's policy puts a stranglehold on growth on Cherokee Street.

"Ultimately it undermines the credibility of people trying to develop Cherokee Street," says Liebermann. "I'll take would-be investors down the street and tell them, 'You can put a pub on this corner, but not this corner. But if you really want to open a bar on this corner, you still can. You just need to sell a lot of peanuts along with the drinks.'"

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