Out of the quagmire

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Things are looking up for Kyle McHugh, who I've written about a couple times in the last few months. He was denied a liquor license in early August for Drinks Over Dearborn, the River North second-floor liquor store he's been building--and though he was optimistic that his appeal would ultimately be successful, he was worried about how long it could take (it took the bar underneath his store, the Joynt, a year and a half to get approved for a liquor license). McHugh finally got the license last Friday, close to a year after he started the application process, and about two months after his application was denied.

So what's been going on at the Local Liquor Control Commission with the license and appeal process in those two months? McHugh isn't entirely sure, because the process is anything but transparent. "It's a quagmire at best," he says. "And I'm standing in the quagmire, and I can't tell you exactly how it works."

The license was originally denied because of opposition from area residents and the local alderman, Brendan Reilly, but since McHugh wasn't allowed to see the letters they sent, he didn't know exactly what their concerns were. As the letter from the LLCC denying his license suggested, he submitted a plan of operations detailing how he would run his business and why it would not have negative impact on the neighborhood.

Soon after that, the president of the River North Residents Association, Brian Israel (who'd been out of town for the previous month), brokered a meeting between McHugh and members of the board at the nearby condo the Caravel--McHugh's only opposition, as he found out. The board members were concerned that people standing in line to get into nearby clubs the Joynt, Vision, and Excalibur would buy liquor at McHugh's store and drink it on the street. To avoid this, they proposed a closing time of 8 PM rather than 10, promising to drop its opposition to the store if McHugh agreed to the change. 

McHugh did some research and agreed to change the store's closing time to 9 PM, which he says is the industry standard (Sam's and Binny's stores close at 9), but argued that closing at 8 would cause him to lose a lot of business from professionals who don't get home until after 7. He also talked to managers and door attendants at Excalibur, Vision, and the Joynt, who said that on the busiest nights, lines don't start forming outside until at least 10 PM (Vision doesn't even open until ten). All the clubs also employ security officers to keep an eye on the lines outside. In an e-mail exchange with members of the Caravel condo board, McHugh laid out his arguments and offered to hire a security guard from 8-9 PM on Friday and Saturday nights to patrol the street outside and head off any illegal activity.

But he'd reached an impasse. The board wasn't willing to budge on the 8 PM closing time. Half a dozen e-mails McHugh sent to the members, describing in ever-increasing detail why his staying open until 9 PM would not have a negative effect on the neighborhood, all met with essentially the same response: we've compromised as much as we're willing to already. "It was like speaking against a brick wall," says McHugh.

He gave up on that battle and submitted his revised plan of operations, with a 9 PM closing time and the additional stipulation that he'd employ a security guard between 8 and 9 PM Friday and Saturday nights (in addition to monitoring four security cameras outside and in the building's lobby, part of his original plan). He was notified last Tuesday that the city had approved the plan, apparently with opposition from Alderman Reilly and the Caravel condo board still on record. The approval process was "murky" and McHugh doesn't really know what happened during it--but since his plan was approved, he's not too concerned.

McHugh's planning to soft open Drinks Over Dearborn next Monday, with limited hours for the first couple weeks. Monday it'll be open from 11 AM-9 PM, and after that daily updates for opening hours will be posted on the store's Web site. The official opening date is Monday, October 27, after which the hours will be 11 AM to 9 PM Monday-Saturday and 11 AM to 5 PM Sunday.

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