The vote was unanimous to renew South’s license but 6-1 for the Hamilton Room, with Commissioner Rackeline Hoff voting no.
At both public hearings, commissioners disapproved of the number of police contacts at both bars. The commission renewed the city’s other Class B and Class C liquor licenses on Feb. 14 and set the Monday hearings for South's and Hamilton Room's renewal requests.
The city renews liquor licenses annually after inspections by city staff and police. The final decision to renew the license is made by the state’s Liquor Control Commission, which typically gives deference to the city’s recommendations, said city attorney Tim Currier.
Birmingham has 29 liquor licenses, five of them have not been issued.
Debate over money, time spent on police calls
A concern for both bars was the number of “contacts” with police. A contact is made anytime the police arrive at the bar — whether to make an arrest, break up a fight or walk through the bar to monitor liquor violations and capacity.
Both bar owners stressed equating contacts with police calls was misleading because many of those contacts — such as routine walk-throughs — are initiated by the police during nightly rounds. South owner Steve Puertas said that of South’s 40 police contacts last year, 33 were officers walking through the bar.
Hoff said it is the commission’s responsibility to assess how the city’s money is spent.
“If our police department are going to be taxed by one or two establishments, that costs money,” she said. “It is costing money to prevent altercations.”
Most of the discussion on the Hamilton Room focused on recent incidents. On March 6, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills police were called to break up a fight outside the nightclub around closing time.
Commissioners debated with Hamilton Room owner Jason Hegedus over the source of the problems -- whether it was the nightclub’s business model or the patrons the bar attracts. “This isn’t a rare occurrence. What’s wrong with your business model?” Commissioner Stuart Sherman asked.
Hegedus assured the commission he’s doing everything he can to curb incidents, including moving last call back to 1:30 a.m. and hiring a security consultant to train his staff in preventing and handling altercations.
“The things that happen we take very seriously,” Hegedus said. “If you come and you are disruptive, you’re banned from all our establishments.”
Puertas said South is working hard to attract a wider variety of patrons beyond the typical "club crowd." They're constantly expanding their menu, he said, and have started playing music to appeal to an older audience during the week. In addition, though South's back room is considered its dance floor, he said they play pop songs from the radio, not hip hop or house music.
Both Puertas and Hegedus said they appreciate police availability through the weekends. Birmingham Police Chief Don Studt said the department would have the same number of officers on the street regardless of whether Hamilton Room or South existed.
“Police go where they think they might be needed,” Studt said. Having an officer outside a bar during closing time is akin to sitting in a school zone to prevent speeding, he said.
'We need to have places to walk to'
Community comment was long for both establishments, with dozens speaking against and for the nightclubs.
James Mack, a 40 year Birmingham residents, said he’s afraid Birmingham’s attempt to open more restaurants downtown has led the city to become a “bar city.”
“I’m not sure (South) belongs in Birmingham,” he said.
Pam Stoller, a Birmingham real estate agent, said the city’s young people are leaving Birmingham at an alarming rate. “If we don’t have places for our kids to go, they’re not going to want to come here,” she said. “If we want a walkable city, we need to have places to walk to.”
Steve Knox, a Birmingham residents and lawyer, supported both bars, pointing out that the owners have invested a lot of money in the city, boosting Birmingham’s economy. “This city deserves to be a city.”
Denise Ilitch, owner and publisher of Ambassador Magazine, noted during Hamilton Room’s hearing that stripping the bar of its liquor license and driving it out of town would severely hurt the entertainment district surrounding the Palladium 12 theater. The group that owns the Hamilton Room also owns the nearby Quattro, and taking away the liquor license from the first would close the second.
“There’s tons of spinoff that comes from an entertainment area. The best situations is when the city and businesses work together,” she said. “If there are any vacancies — especially in the Palladium complex — it’s going to turn the economy the other way around here.”
Eventually, commissioners agreed. “There is way too much to be torn asunder by denying (the Hamilton Room) their liquor licenses,” Commissioner Tom McDaniel said. “We need to give them a second chance.”