Friday and Saturday nights don’t draw nearly as many people to St. Charles’ North Main Street as they did a year or so ago.
Eric Sohn, general manager of Quintessential Dining and Nightlife, said he used to have two DJs on weekends, one for each of the building’s floors. On a Friday night in August, there was only one DJ at work. Also, five bartenders were covering on that evening; last summer, he needed eight on weekends.
“The main thing down here right now is that the crowds are just a lot smaller,” Sohn said. “This time last year, you’d have 3,000 people down here on a Friday. And tonight, between all the bars, there’s maybe 500 or 600 people down here.”
Last fall, after a few well-publicized incidents drew attention to crime in the area, the St. Charles City Council passed a new liquor ordinance that went into effect in January. It includes special requirements for establishments in the Historic Downtown District, which includes the three blocks of North Main Street. While crime in the area has dropped since the new rules came into effect, bar owners say they're unfair to businesses on North Main Street and eating into their bottom lines.
In the Historic Downtown District, bars have to sell a minimum amount of food each year to keep their liquor license. Under the old law, the minimum was $200,000, but the new law mandates at least 50% of sales revenue come from food. Sohn said that could hurt bars with smaller kitchens that rely on more profitable alcohol sales.
“I think it’s unrealistic for some of our neighbors,” Sohn said. “If you’re one of these smaller bars that’s known for selling cheap burgers and fries, it’s really hard to do.”
Another bar owner, Tony Bethmann of Tony’s on Main Street, said that the new laws are picking on North Main Street businesses and that the law should be the same citywide.
“Here’s the three words that we want out of any new liquor laws: Historic Downtown District,” he said. “Just write new laws for the entire city of St. Charles.”
There are parts of the new ordinance that do apply everywhere. One of those is a new citywide point system. Various violations result in punitive points assigned to a business' liquor license. Letting a guest leave with an open container will get a bar 1 1/2 points, and serving an intoxicated person another drink is worth three points. A total of 6 1/2 points means the city can revoke the license. Bethmann objects to assigning points for non-alcohol related violations, like repair and maintenance problems or a bad health inspector’s report. He also questions the weight of each offense. For example, serving a minor results in three points, while a homicide on the premises results in 3 1/2.
The new law also creates a liquor commission, made up of the police chief and other city employees, to which businesses can appeal.
On the beat
The law isn’t the only change North Main Street has seen recently. Last spring, the St. Charles Police Department started assigning a detail specifically to patrol the district on Friday and Saturday nights to address concerns about violence. Officer Jordan Exum said he and others who frequently work the detail have developed good relationships with business owners who can work with the police if they have trouble.
“Everywhere we go, we know a business owner or employee,” Exum said. “So if we have a problem, we know somebody by first and last name that we can go to and we can be like, ‘Hey, this is something you need to address.’ And most of the time they fix it without us even having to say anything again.”
It seems to be working. Department statistics show reported incidents have dropped by more than half in the first six months of 2019 compared to the same time frame last year, from over 300 incidents to 143. Exum said there’s significantly less drug crime and almost no trouble with guns.
“It’s been a drastic difference,” he said.
Bethmann has also seen less crime, and pointed to the flowers in front of his restaurant.
“Those would have been vandalized in a week two years ago,” he said. “Those wouldn’t have made it over a weekend.”
There’s one more change police and bar owners alike point to as a possible factor in the crime drop. Three popular bars — Bobby’s Place, Two Twelve and Undertow — closed in January, right after the new liquor law took effect. It’s unclear whether these businesses closed in response to the new law or not. Billy Beeny was a bouncer at Bobby’s Place. He said the bar didn’t attract a bad crowd, just a big one.
“I feel like the reason we had more incidents is just because we were one of the most popular bars on the street. Whenever you have a lot of people at your bar, the chance of something bad happening goes up,” he said.
City Hall has taken note of the drop in business and complaints from the bar owners. St. Charles City Council member Mary Ann Ohms, 1st Ward, represents North Main Street. She opposed changing the $200,000 floor in the first place and thinks the 50% rule is too restrictive. What’s more, she said other new safety measures are keeping the area safe.
“We installed cameras. We’ve got lights that come up. It’s a zero-tolerance environment now,” she said. “So I wanted to see those work before making it more strict or more difficult for these restaurant bars to make it.”
Ohms said there are some other non-bar businesses on North Main Street that would like to keep the more restrictive laws, but she doesn’t want to make it too hard for restaurants to survive in the district.
She recently proposed changing the minimum ratio to 25% food to liquor sales and adding a representative from Main Street to the appeal board. The council withdrew that bill right before final passage to make more revisions. Ohms plans to work on the replacement law and hopes to have it to the council in the coming months.
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