This late-April gathering in a cramped City Hall conference room looks more like a Cold War diplomacy session than a public hearing.
Seventeen people are here to discuss the future of the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge, one of the most popular late-night bars in St. Louis. Catering to a college-age crowd, the Delmar attracts a throng that swells well past 100 after the clock strikes 1:30 a.m., when most other bars close. Early evenings, it's upscale dining, with patrons of all ages and jazz a few days a week. But that's not what pays the bills. Work it right, and a 3 a.m. liquor license can be a permit to print money.
Doug Morgan and Jim Russell, who've owned the Delmar for six years, appear to have worked it right -- despite a sluggish economy, they've increased their annual revenue by nearly $500,000 during the past four years, according to records filed with the St. Louis excise commissioner's office. They think they've helped make the east end of the Loop a success, but now they want to cash in and move on.
The partners have a deal to sell the bar, located at the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Eastgate Avenue, with the sale contingent on the buyer's getting a 3 a.m. license. That means the new owner has to start from scratch. Doesn't matter how long the bar's been there. Doesn't matter whether the business has been a good neighbor. Doesn't matter whether you're God. "If you don't get neighborhood consent, it doesn't matter how nice a guy you are -- you're not going to get a license," says James Morgan, liquor-control officer for the excise commissioner's office.
It doesn't take much to bring everything to a screeching halt. Ten signatures from property owners or tenants within 500 feet is enough, and Carrie Steinbach, who lives on Washington Avenue, just inside the 500-foot mark, has 28, all from neighbors on her street. At the hearing, she sits stone-faced as Brandon Hellan, who's managed the Delmar for two years, makes his case while digging his nails into his palms beneath the conference table. He wasn't planning on this when he began his quest to become the Delmar's new owner.
Hellan's presentation lasts less than two minutes: I want to own the Delmar and keep things as they've always been, he says. The building's owner testifies in favor of the license, as does Hellan's mother and a representative from the Delmar Commercial Committee, one of at least three neighborhood associations and business groups that have written letters in support of the license transfer. A St. Louis police officer has shown up to support Hellan, but he has to leave before it's time for testimony.
Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th Ward), who once held a fundraiser at the Delmar, is also present. She's been on the Board of Aldermen for nearly as long as the Delmar has been open and says she got her first complaint -- for noise -- about two months ago, after Hellan submitted his application. "And people usually don't hesitate," she notes. Krewson says she wants to hear concerns from opponents before taking a position, but she walks away empty. Steinbach won't say why she opposes the license transfer. Blake Ashby, a minority partner with Morgan and Russell, asks her several times to state her concerns. "Let us know what we're doing wrong," he pleads. "Please. Just anything. Let us know what we can work on."
Each time, Steinbach gives the same answer: "I will reserve my testimony until the next hearing." And so Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg does what the law requires, holding off action for 30 days, when another hearing will be scheduled.
If Steinbach succeeds, the Delmar won't shut down, and it won't close early, Russell and Morgan say. It simply won't be sold. Liquor-license renewals are virtually automatic unless there's a history of significant problems, and that isn't the case with the Delmar, according to records at the excise commissioner's office. The Delmar file contains no complaints from the public, although Morgan, the liquor-control officer, says the excise commissioner's office received a complaint about the same time Krewson did.
Russell leaves the hearing looking tired. He has a newborn child and a father with lung cancer. After six years of being chained to the Delmar oar, he wants to buy an RV and travel the country with his family.
"I am not being allowed to sell my business," he says. "It's sad. This is going to be a 45-day delay. My dad could be dead by then."
Doug Morgan says that he, Russell and Hellan want to work with neighbors. Morgan notes that he and his partner long ago hired off-duty police officers to provide security four nights a week, and they're willing to hire officers on every night if the neighborhood wants it. "In our opinion, we've done absolutely the best we can to, number one, create a good business and, number two, be good neighbors," he says. "And we're willing to do more if the neighborhood has other issues with us. Don't just say no. Give us a shot."
Excise-commission files show Morgan encountered no opposition in 1997 when he obtained the current 3 a.m. license, taking over from a previous operator who also had a late-hours permit. At the time, adjacent storefronts in the building at the east end of the Loop were mostly empty. Now, there are no vacancies. Neighbors include a sandwich shop, an architect's office and a Thai restaurant. Morgan and Russell don't take full credit, but they think they've helped make the neighborhood safer.
"It was kind of a wild frontier when we first moved in there," Morgan says. "We had crack dealers standing on the corner, right in front of our restaurant, 24 hours a day. We got a little bit of police help, but for the most part, we ran them off. We were the ones who went out there every day: 'Get off our block.'"
Susan Zarleneo-James, who has lived one block from the Delmar Lounge since its inception, agrees that the neighborhood has gotten better since the Delmar opened. "You want that kind of a thing, because it does improve the overall quality of the neighborhood," she says. "I don't want to do anything to hold up the Delmar -- I've known Doug and Jim a long time. They run a nice club. They've always taken pride in the lounge, putting up a new awning and making sure it's kept clean. But, at the same time, I'm looking out my front window right now and there's three beer bottles lying on my front lawn. It's a double-edged sword."
About two years ago, late-night noise from patrons leaving the lounge began increasing and is now intolerable, Zarleneo-James says. "I hate saying it's all the Delmar Lounge, but I don't know of anybody else that's open that late," she says. "There was a guy parked outside my apartment building last night, a quarter to two in the morning, and this guy is cranking Hootie and the Blowfish. You want to support the commerce, but what are you giving up at the same time? You're giving up a lot of sleep, I can tell you that."
According to Steinbach's protest petitions, she and other opponents, who live more than twice the distance from the Delmar as Zarleneo-James, are concerned about noise and insufficient parking. The petitions also state there shouldn't be any 3 a.m. licenses in the neighborhood. However, James Morgan says Steinbach withdrew an initial protest against a 3 a.m. license recently granted to Pin-Up Bowl, a yet-to-open bowling alley that is closer to her home -- and the homes of other Delmar protesters -- than the Delmar. Unlike the Delmar, Pin-Up Bowl, which is being built by Loop pioneer Joe Edwards at 6191 Delmar, will not have its own parking lot. Steinbach declined an interview request.
Jo Ann Vatcha, who chairs the Delmar Commercial Committee, says the Delmar is caught in a case of bad timing. If the deal to sell the lounge had been proposed a year ago, she says, she doesn't think anyone would have objected. But when Pin-Up Bowl opens this fall, there will be three 3 a.m. bars on Delmar Boulevard in a stretch of less than three city blocks. Until the Halo Bar opened in 2000, the Delmar was the only one in the area. In addition, an application for 609 Restaurant and U Lounge, a proposed bar across Eastgate from the Delmar, is pending. A previous application for that location fizzled in March after protesters argued that parking was insufficient. And neighborhood activists and the excise commissioner's office expect another application for a bar being planned at the intersection of Rosedale Avenue and Delmar, just west of the Delmar MetroLink station.
In short, Edwards' dream of a Loop commercial district that extends to the MetroLink station is coming true. "People are seeing the opportunities on Delmar," says Vatcha, whose organization supports the Delmar's license transfer. Some residents, she says, are nervous about the eastern end of the Loop's becoming a wall-to-wall nightclub district. Her group opposes 609 Restaurant's application, chiefly because there are no provisions for off-street parking. Track records are also important, she says. Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill, the Pageant Theatre and the Halo Bar, has a reputation for running a tight ship. Until recently, no one had raised a peep about the Delmar Lounge. "We can feel more comfortable endorsing something like this," Vatcha says.
Although he holds three liquor licenses in the Loop, including two for 3 a.m. bars, Edwards says he doesn't want to see the area turn into Bourbon Street. "My own rule of thumb is, I think you need four to five retail stores for every restaurant to make the area interesting," he says. "If it's all restaurants and someone's already eaten a meal, it's not interesting for them to walk up and down the sidewalks. And that's what makes an urban area interesting and vibrant and safe, is having people walking up and down the sidewalks."
But some folks are already on nightclub overload.
"I think there's too much going on in this particular section," says Zarleneo-James. "There are plenty of places on the Loop where these places can open."