Still dancing at El Nuevo Rodeo

"It's not just a bar; it's not just a nightclub," said Alex Rojas, general manager for El Nuevo Rodeo. "It is a community center, too."

Right now, however, El Nuevo Rodeo is engaged in a battle to stay alive, as the city of Minneapolis tries to shut it down. After months of uncertainty, El Nuevo Rodeo won the first round in mid-March, as Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Raymond Krause, after hearing evidence from both sides, made a recommendation in favor of El Nuevo Rodeo.   

The ALJ hearing was the first success for Santamaria and El Nuevo Rodeo. On April 19, El Nuevo Rodeo won a second favorable recommendation, this time from the City of Minneapolis Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee. The next step is a vote by the City Council on April 30 and then Mayor R.T. Rybak will have until May 6 to make his decision.

The city may have begun building its case two years ago. In April 2008, three people were shot across the street at Denny's Restaurant.  According to El Nuevo Rodeo's owner Maya Santamaria, the incident marked the beginning of the city's push to shut down her business.

"We had some bad luck," she said.  "It happened across the street ... and we got the fallout."

According to Santamaria, the bar serves the Latino community and because those involved in the shooting were Mexican, she believes people assumed El Nuevo Rodeo was to blame.

"It was because of their color and ethnicity," she said.  "Because they were Mexican."

The police could not prove the shooting involved any patrons from El Nuevo Rodeo, but the city began investigating the business and compiling an evidence packet - which eventually included over 30 police reports - to bring before an administrative law judge (ALJ), in an attempt to revoke the business's liquor license.

According to Melanie Majors, Executive Director of the Longfellow Community Council (LCC), in her three years with the LCC she has received just two complaints about the nightclub.

"The controversy over the past couple of years has really not been generated by residents in the neighborhood," Majors said.  "Some people have commented to me that this is a political issue more than anything and the owner of El Nuevo Rodeo was just collateral damage."

Santamaria said the city was "out to get" the club by any means necessary. 

"Previously we had just had a meeting with licensing and they seemed pleased with everything," she said.  "We had a clean bill of health and then the next month it is 'shut it down.'"

Throughout the investigation, Santamaria said, it was one thing after another.  An accusation here, another problem found by the city there.

"I constantly have had to defend and defend and defend ... and I don't think that I've done all that much wrong," she said.  "Before there were people selling crack and prostitution (in the area) ... Now it is well lit, good security, remodeled."

After months of being constantly monitored and being cited for things such as letting the music play a couple minutes late and someone walking outside with a beer, Santamaria signed an agreement to report any incidents with bar patrons to the police.  However, she said, this agreement would later come back to bite her.

According to Santamaria, many of the police reports made by El Nuevo Rodeo later were used as part of the evidence packet in the city's attempt to revoke her business's liquor license. "I was really naïve," Santamaria said.  "They (the city) were conspiring against me and I didn't know it."

No one at the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct would comment for this article, despite multiple phone calls to different officials at the precinct.

In addition, the city said the business did not possess the proper zoning regulations to maintain a nightclub.

"The community developed the 'East End Revival Plan' in 2001, where the community deemed that the area of Lake and 27th should be an 'entertainment district,'" Majors said.

Majors said this plan was approved by the city; however the necessary changes to the zoning regulations were never made.

Majors said the nightclub is extremely important for the community because it brings in a lot of revenue and also because it provides entertainment community members should expect to have access to in their city.

"They obviously serve many needs of the people that frequent this site or it would not be so popular," she said.  "So many people come from other communities to El Nuevo because their communities lack what El Nuevo provides."

El Nuevo Rodeo is full nearly every night with music and dance, short skirts and cowboy hats.  The bar hosts a variety of different artists throughout the year, Santamaria said, and also serves as a site for non-profit fundraisers.

"We do it (fundraisers) because we're there and we feel like we should," she said.

Santamaria said she did many things to maintain her business and keep the city happy.  She stepped up security after the shootings, submitted receipts for a year in order to keep her liquor license and signed the agreement with the city to report wrongdoers.

"We will always respond to needs and be proactive as good business owners," she said.

In the midst of the investigation, Santamaria also began the process of applying to expand her business downtown.

"I spent a lot of time bringing in firms, real estate people, attorneys," she said.  "All the steps you take when you think you might be purchasing a building."

This new project brought a new vision.  Santamaria said she hoped to create the "Minneapolis version" of Chicago's Aragon Entertainment Center for the entire community - not just Latinos.

Santamaria presented the plans for the new space to the Planning and Zoning Committee of the North Loop Neighborhood Association (NLNA) and, she said, "They loved it." 

NLNA chair David Frank said, "The committee thought that this proposal sounded good, based on the information that they heard and forwarded it on to the board."

Frank said that typically the board goes along with the committee's recommendation, but that didn't happen in this case.  Coincidentally, he said, several members of the Minneapolis Police Department and Minneapolis council members were present for the meeting and brought the evidence packet to the board's attention.

"There was very serious stuff, events (in the packet)," Frank said.  "Illegal activity happening, police activity happening.  The liquor license had not been revoked but it is a possibility."

Frank said this information was not disclosed to the Planning and Zoning Committee, and in light of the information the board did not approve the expansion of Santamaria's business.

"(We were) barred from being able to come downtown," Santamaria said.

A reason for using the evidence packet, Santamaria said, was that Minneapolis City Council member for the Seventh Ward Lisa Goodman felt the neighborhood wouldn't want El Nuevo Rodeo's "clientele" downtown.

"Basically saying that we don't want Mexicans downtown," Santamaria said.  "I thought that was extremely racist."

After two attempts to contact Council Member Goodman for this story, her secretary, Ruth Weakley, said Goodman would not comment on anything regarding El Nuevo Rodeo.

Frank said he was not aware that Council Member Goodman said anything about "the people" the new business would bring to the neighborhood.

"She (Council Member Goodman) did have concerns about the way the Lake Street business was being run," he said.  "I do not believe that there was a position taken about 'the people' ... Issues are very different from people.  I want to be very clear about this."

When the city's request to close El Nuevo Rodeo went before Administrative Law Judge Raymond Krause in mid-March, the outcome was expected to favor Minneapolis.  Santamaria said she thought she would lose it all.

"Basically I'm guilty before being proven innocent," she said. 

However, Judge Krause ruled in favor of El Nuevo Rodeo, finding that the club was conducting business as originally presented in their business plan when they applied for the license and recommended the city not revoke it.

Santamaria said the judge "totally got it" and for the first time she felt there was some fairness and support in the Minneapolis government.

"Thank God there is actually justice in this country," she said. "I think I doubted justice even existed."

The story is not yet over, however - stay tuned

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Caitlin Burgess's picture
Caitlin Burgess

Caitlin Burgess (caitlinburgess [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas with degrees in journalism and Spanish. She is currently living in Downtown St. Paul.