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Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 08:17 am

Because I said so!

Simpson fights liquor license

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Aaron Hurley, co-owner of Scandals, outside his new buisness location on 1031 S. 11th St.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
 

UPDATED WITH RESULTS OF COUNCIL VOTE, SIMPSON INTERVIEW

The proprietor of a Springfield restaurant who wants to serve alcohol to gay clientele is worried about the future of his business thanks to Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson, who has tried blocking an application for a liquor license.

The city council on Tuesday voted to approve a liquor license for Scandals at 1031 S. 11th St., but the 7-1 vote is not a veto-proof margin, and Mayor Mike Houston has voiced support for Simpson's stance. Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman abstained, saying he has worked as an attorney for the proprietors and so has a conflict. Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner was absent from the meeting.

Simpson, who could not be reached for comment before Tuesday's vote, had not said why she opposed the license for Scandals, but she made it clear during a July 30 council committee meeting that what she says should go in her ward. After a lecture from Simpson, who shook a finger at colleagues as she spoke, the council a week ago tabled the application from Scandals, which recently moved from downtown to a building that had been boarded up.

“I want to make it real clear to every alderman sitting around this table: I’m sick and tired of everyone knowing what’s better for Ward 2 than I do,” Simpson declared angrily. “You don’t live in the ward, you don’t represent the people who live in the ward. … The common courtesy is to do as I say.”

On Tuesday, Simpson, who has a history of opposing liquor licenses in her ward, said that her opposition was based on her belief that her ward already has more than enough bars. She also told her colleagues that her ward has more "alcohol-related businesses" than any other ward.

But that isn't true, according to city records that show just three wards have fewer liquor licenses than Ward 2, which has 24 businesses with city permits to sell alcohol. Three wards have more than 40 liquor licenses, with Ward 5 having 68, the most of any ward in the city. Nonetheless, Simpson after the meeting said that she still believed that her ward, which she said lacks economic development, has more liquor licenses than other wards, even when a reporter pointed out that city records show that Ward 2 has fewer liquor licenses than most other wards.

Simpson in 2009 voted in favor of a liquor license for the same address as Scandals on Eleventh Street. That bar, which has since closed, was allowed to sell alcohol with no food service requirement. By contrast, Scandals, which includes a restaurant, will have to make at least half of its revenue from food sales.

"That was a mistake," Simpson said in explaining her 2009 vote in favor of a bar in the same building now occupied by Scandals. 

Aaron Hurley, co-owner of Scandals, said that he doesn’t have a Plan B.

“I spent every dollar I have in purchasing this property,” Hurley said. “This is my livelihood. This is what I do.”

Hurley opened a restaurant in the building even before the council tabled the liquor license application. He said he plans cabaret-style shows and occasional live music in a large room upstairs that features a stage. Supporters of the business on Tuesday presented the council with petitions they said included signatures from 600 people in favor of a liquor license, with 400 signatures coming from residents of Ward 2. Simpson, however, disputed that so many signatures came from her constituents.

Simpson after Tuesday's meeting disputed the notion that she hadn't said why she opposed a liquor license for Scandals, saying that she had spoken with the proprietors before the first council vote. Hurley, who lives in an apartment adjacent to his business, said that he spoke with Simpson twice about his plans. He said that Simpson suggested that he convert the building to housing or open a grocery store.

“She suggested a million things she wants me to do in this building, none of which I have any knowledge of doing,” Hurley said. “The second time I talked to her, she told me that she was going to a Bible study meeting in Peoria and she would stop by on her way home. She stopped by and honked. I went outside, and invited her inside. She said ‘You still have the intent to serve liquor, so there’s no need for me to come inside.’”

Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards said that Springfield has a tradition of neighborhood bars and giving Scandals a liquor license is a matter of economic development.

“What do we need a city council for if each alderman does whatever they want?" Edwards said. "Do you want the city to be divided into 10 wards or do you want a city government? That’s the choice.”

The city now has just one bar catering to a gay clientele. Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe, Springfield’s only openly gay elected official, voted in favor of tabling the application on July 30 but says that was only to give Simpson time to meet with the applicant to resolve differences.

Jobe said that he patronized Scandals when it was a downtown bar and sees no reason that it should not be allowed to operate on Eleventh Street in a neighborhood that needs revitalization.

“Here comes someone who wants to start a business there that has had a business in our community in the past and we shut the door on them,” Jobe said. 

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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