City puts conditions on Gabby’s, due to patrons’ behavior

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On Feb. 22, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak officially approved the city council’s plan to put conditions on the liquor license held by Gabby’s Saloon and Eatery, 1900 Marshall St. NE, just across the Mississippi River from North Minneapolis. And that, according to bar owner Jeff Ormond, will touch off a full-scale legal battle over the bar’s rights.

“We’ll take this to the Federal Supreme Court, if we have to,” Ormond said. “These people are out of their minds. The city council thinks it is untouchable. What they’re doing to me and our business is wrong. We have never violated the law.”

But Capt. Robert Skomra, 2nd Precinct Police Inspector, sees the situation differently. “Yes, a business can operate completely within the law on its premises. The question is, how much responsibility does the business have when its patrons leave, to go and do whatever out in the neighborhood?”

For Gabby’s, the city council and the courts, that seems to be the crux of the matter. As Ormond’s attorney, Scott Harris put it in his Jan. 17, 2008, 45-page “Exceptions to the Administrative Law Judge’s Findings,” the case is not about anything Gabby’s has done wrong; rather, it is “because of alleged off-premises conduct of the license holders’ alleged customers.”

His response came after Administrative Law Judge Raymond Krause found, on Nov. 21, 2007, that while the city doesn’t have a legal right to revoke Gabby’s license, good cause exists for the city council to take “appropriate action” against Gabby’s liquor license.

In the judge’s findings, Krause cited neighbors’ complaints of loud music and talking, disorderly conduct and disruptive behavior, people urinating on their lawns, having sex in public, burglary, vandalism, loitering, fighting, using drugs, and gunfire.

Neighbors attribute the behavior to Gabby’s patrons, especially at bar closing time on Thursday and Saturday nights, when an often full-to-capacity crowd spills out into the neighborhood and walks to their cars. Some people complained that strangers have knocked on their doors late at night and demanded to be let in. Many of the complaints were confirmed by police and city inspectors in 2006 and 2007, who cited numerous police calls, drugs, assaults, weapons violations, people having sex in a car and an Oct. 29, 2006 incident where a Gabby’s customer was shot in the street in front of the bar.

The Minneapolis City Council voted Feb. 15 to impose five conditions on Gabby’s liquor license. The conditions include a $10,000 fine payable to Licenses and Consumer Services and $15,000 earmarked to recompense the Minneapolis Police Department. Gabby’s must always have a trained manager or owner on site during business hours, and submit a management plan to the city that addresses its security and alcohol service.

Also, the plan must “effectively address criminal activity and neighborhood livability issues associated with the establishment.” Further conditions reduce the number of occupants in the bar to 438, based on its number of parking spaces, and eliminate free drink specials.

The council threw out two proposed conditions, to cut operating hours and offer a decreased cover charge to people who park in Gabby’s parking lots.

According to city spokesperson Matt Laible, the city will hold off on enforcing the conditions until the appeals process is completed; the city’s response is due on March 11.

The history

Gabby’s has been in business for more than 22 years. It sits on the Mississippi River in an area zoned for industrial use. It is a huge building, with several floors and a big outdoor patio. The fire code allows almost 700 patrons at a time.

About three years ago, Gabby’s changed its format to hip hop and rap music on Thursday and Saturday nights, with free ladies drink specials on Thursdays. The move was popular with new and existing patrons, who flocked to the bar on those nights.

But neighbors started complaining about the huge crowds spilling out into the streets after the 2 a.m. closing time. Because Gabby’s offers only about 175 parking spaces (according to the city; Ormond says there are more) many customers parked (legally, for the most part) on Marshall Street or up to five or six blocks east of the bar on residential streets in the Bottineau neighborhood.

Aaron Neuman, board member of the Bottineau Neighborhood Association (BNA), said he lives right across the street from Gabby’s. “I used to be a supporter of Gabby’s, but I’ve changed my mind. There are too many people coming out of that bar from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays. When Gabby’s has their cheap drink specials, people get so wasted and really rowdy. They are disturbing the peace and violating other people’s rights.

“The bar owners just want to make their money quickly and not deal with the consequences, so they hire cops to shove people off their [Gabby’s] property as soon as possible,” Neuman added. “The police block off Marshall Street and force people to go through the neighborhood. People are sick of the trash, the bottles and the half pints in their yards, the really loud car stereos blaring. The neighborhood can’t accommodate that many people.”

Gabby’s owners say that nobody has proved that their patrons are the ones causing trouble; they point to other nearby bars along Marshall Street, such as Psycho Suzie’s and Dusty’s.

Ormond said Gabby’s employs off-duty police and has a large security staff and 40 video cameras, inside and outside. He hires people to clean up litter in the streets every night. They “wand” patrons (with hand held metal detectors) for weapons at the door, and have a computerized “trespassing list” of people who are banned from the premises. The list (according to Krause’s findings) is 29 pages long and includes 1,640 people.

Skomra said, “The question comes down to, if Gabby’s did not exist, would the problems in the neighborhood exist? Then there’s the legal question, of where does the city stand in their authority to stand up for neighborhood residents? What’s our obligation there?”

Although Gabby’s has a security staff, Skomra said, “All the security is at the bar site at closing time. It doesn’t reach out into the neighborhood to quell the problems. Although Gabby’s says we can’t prove these are their customers, I think that many people are intelligent enough to infer that a set of circumstances point to the fact that at least 90 percent of them are. That’s only logical reasoning.”

When asked if he thinks Gabby’s representatives have attempted to portray him as a racist [Harris implied in his Exceptions that Skomra said the city’s goal is to change the “young, African American crowd,” to a different crowd, and had suggested raising the cover charge to “put off” the “young, African-American patrons” so they would no longer frequent Gabby’s], Skomra said, “I was very clear about that, and I am very aware that this is predominantly a black venue. That has no influence on our standards. We have found through experience downtown that a hip hop and rap music venue provides special problems for security.”

Although Ormond contends that Skomra suggested that Ormond change his venue to country western music so he wouldn’t have these problems, Skomra is adamant that he made no such statement. “Jeff Ormond brought up the issue of country western music. I never brought it up. He is inferring on his own that I meant there were problems because it was a black venue.

“Although Jeff Ormond tries to portray Gabby’s as the safest bar in the city and talks about all the money he spends on security,” Skomra added, “they spend that much because they have concerns themselves. This has been a long, hard fight for the city. Can you imagine how the residents feel?”

When asked about the $15,000 “buyback” (or compensatory) money to the police department, Skomra said he wasn’t present when the city decided on that. However, for more than a year, he has assigned on-duty officers to Gabby’s on Thursday and Saturday nights. “In 2007, that amounted to over $71,000 in on-duty officers providing free patrolling for Gabby’s. Meanwhile, Gabby’s pays less than $34,000 a year in property taxes. The city is losing a significant amount of revenue, which we can ill afford to lose, to make sure that the area around Gabby’s is safe.

Third Ward Minneapolis City Council Member Diane Hofstede said she knows that people are watching the council’s actions on Gabby’s (which is located in the Third Ward).

“In my view, a license in the City of Minneapolis is a privilege, related directly to the impact on the community and being a good neighbor. When they don’t comply with our standards and expectations, we ask people how we can remedy the situation,” Hofstede said. “We welcome businesses into our community, but people want to live here, too. I think it is important that the city and council make restrictions on this particular business. Gabby’s is more than just a neighborhood bar. The Administrative Law Judge’s conclusions are very specific as to the impact these behaviors have had on the community. When you read the report, it is pretty compelling.”

First Ward City Council Member Paul Ostrow said he and Hofstede had disagreed about when the enforcement of the conditions should begin. He contended that it should not start until after the appeal process is completed.

“I think we have to be cautious. We are concerned about neighborhood livability, but we also have to be careful with the public’s money,” Ostrow said. “Even if we think there’s a good chance we’ll win, we know that they will make the claim that [without the city’s restriction on the number of their customers] they would have 200-plus more customers every night they didn’t have to comply. [And are therefore losing revenue because of it.]

“We should be as aggressive as possible about our legal rights; we are willing to make a strong legal argument. By not opening ourselves up to financial liability, we are in a stronger position to be more aggressive. We need to be thoughtful and smart. This will be seen as a precedent. Other bars will fight with them. But we have to protect the people we represent with reasonable conditions. In the future, we’ll be able to get ahead of the situation even more.”

Ostrow said the issue is not about what Gabby’s has done, but about the behavior of their patrons. “They have not been able to effectively control the behavior of people at their establishment. They cannot claim that the issues there have not been out of control. Gabby’s has always said we couldn’t do anything at all. The Administrative Law Judge disagreed with that.”

The owner’s side

Ormond said, “We’re in a fight right now. We’ve never violated any laws, but the conditions include $25,000 in fines. What are they fining us for? We’ve been inspected inside out. We’re good at security. We’ve had 35-plus visits from licensing and the fire marshal. Show me a ticket and we’ll pay it. You just can’t come up with hip-shot numbers.”

He said that putting limits on drink specials will mean he can’t be competitive with other bars. “We’ve done it for 22 years. On Thursday nights, ladies can come in and drink for free. There’s a $10 cover, 9 to midnight. Some places downtown don’t even charge a cover on ladies’ night.”

Ormond said Gabby’s is located in industrial zoning. “What’s the difference between 400 and 700 people in an industrial area? I think this is all political. The council member has to do something for her seven to 10 neighbors who are whining, so she can say, ‘I’ve done my job.’”

Ormond said he has complied with everything the city has requested. “The police said put up more lights, so I did. Inspections said add six to eight security staff. I added 10. We sweep up all the debris. I pay 10 off-duty police officers. I don’t know what more I can do as a good neighbor.

“Maybe the city should stop all licensing,” Ormond said. “Then let the council members set up conditions for individual businesses in the city. Right now, we need a federal court judge to put an injunction against the city. Limiting our drink specials will kill us. If we have to close, we’ll sue. We’re fighting for the 78 employees. It’s our livelihood. We’re fighting for our jobs. They are using Gabby’s as a test case. If a licensee does something they don’t like, the city can go in at any given time and impose a condition? I say, ‘Look out, Minneapolis businesses.’”

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