Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 25

It wasn’t enough that we had extreme financial pressure while we were trying to open in the new location; there was another kind of pressure from the city of Rockford. When we first came to Rockford, we were the darling of the downtown wine and cheese set. That changed after my lawsuit to try to stop the MetroCentre from putting a restaurant bar in the parking deck. I dropped the lawsuit, but I was young and not all that humble, and I made a few enemies in the process.

The powers that existed in City Hall came after us, and they were relentless. They actively tried to put us out of business. First, there were the undercover sting operations. Sting operations all of our neighboring liquor purveyors were made aware of. I have never favored the use of sting to enforce liquor law compliance. Someone always leaks to their friends, and thus the playing field is not level.

The first sting we suffered as I wrote in an earlier edition, took place while we were still in the State and Madison building. The City’s first attempt to shut us down was by demanding that we close for three days before we moved to the new location. This was in spite of the fact that we no longer had a lease on the property to be closed. This was only averted because of the kindness of Dave Casazza and Ken Ahlstrand. They extended our stay at the old location so we could take our punishment.

Before this could even happen, however, we were forced to abandon our lawsuit challenging the validity of the sting operations in appellate court. This part of the law has not (to this day) been challenged since the ’60s. We were deprived of due process. An attorney of the city acknowledged this to our attorney. But they didn’t care; they wanted us out of business.

The next roadblock they threw in our way had to do with moving our liquor license to the new location. They wanted us to produce financial information concerning our business, to whom we owed money, what our financial condition was, etc. I went to the library and looked up the pertaining city law. The only requirement in the law concerning moving an existing license was that the new location be zoned for liquor. It already was a bar. I sent them a letter to that effect, and stated that nothing further was required. I stated comically that I owed everybody money, a lot of money, and that there would be no possible way of repaying them if I was prevented from moving our business.

They then stated that our back room was not zoned and that they were of the opinion that I could not open until all the contiguous area was zoned. At that time, I told the city attorney I was talking to that I hoped they did because I would make more money off the lawsuit I was going to take against the city than I would ever make in the bar business. But cocky or not, I wanted a back-up plan.

I walked down the street to Zeke Giorgi’s office. As always, Zeke let me into his office and listened patiently to my tale of woe. When I finished, he put a call through to the main man at the Illinois Liquor Control Commission. He went into the other office and listened while I repeated my story. When I was finished, he said very simply and quietly, “Everything the kid told you is true.” Then, the top guy at the Illinois Liquor Control told me what to do. I was to write a letter informing the city of my intention to open on a certain date. Then when the city denied us, we would get a hearing immediately, and we would be open in a few days. I was in the catbird seat.

I wrote my letter to the city stating that I was going to open on a certain date. I believe it was a Friday at 5 p.m. I further stated that the part of the building not zoned for liquor would be blocked off with plywood until such time as zoning was completed and that no one would be allowed to go into this part of the building with alcoholic beverages. Frank Schier accompanied me to present the letter to a city attorney (I wanted a witness). The die was cast; now we only had to wait till opening day.

Opening day was finally upon us, and our liquor license still had not been signed. An attorney friend took pity on me and joined the cause. He sent one of his associates to sit outside the Mayor’s office with a copy of our liquor license. Time ticked by. At about 4:30, the mayor came out of his office and signed the license. At 5, we served our first beer. We were officially moved and open in our new location. But it wasn’t our last trial, not by a long shot.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2005, issue

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