01/25/08 — Neighbors speak out against beer sales license for Club 55

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Neighbors speak out against beer sales license for Club 55

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 25, 2008 1:46 PM

A decision in Thursday's ABC permit hearing for Club 55 El Abuelo is likely to be at least a month away, so for now, the Lenoir County nightspot will continue to operate without beer sales.

That could change, however, after administrative law judge Melissa Owens-Lassiter makes her ruling, which is expected sometime within the next 45 days.

Then once her decision is announced, the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission will have the opportunity to review it and owner Randy Mills' application before deciding whether or not to reverse its earlier decision.

Many Seven Springs residents, however, are hopeful that the denial of the permit will stand, as more than two dozen people crammed their way into a basement conference room in the chapel building at Cherry Hospital.

Most were there to show their opposition to Mills' application for an ABC permit to sell beer at his Hispanic-oriented nightclub, which opened in September. Currently, patrons are allowed to bring their own beer into the club.

"Our country was founded on immigrants and our country has worked so hard to overcome discrimination," said Zoe Mossberg. "And my personal opinion and personal perception of this business is that it caters to one culture, and I feel like this business violates the Constitution.

"We don't have African American clubs alone. We don't have Asian clubs and I don't believe this supports what we represent."

But for most people, their concerns are more basic than that.

Already worried about the changes the nightclub has brought to their community near Seven Springs, they are afraid of what more would happen if alcohol sales were added to the equation.

"There was a fear that gripped this community (when the club's plans were announced) and that fear is very real, and it continues to this day," said Elliott Hill, a retired Southern Baptist preacher living near the club.

That fear, he explained, is based largely on the community's experiences with Smitty's and Fiesta, two other now-closed nightclubs, where several residents testified there were regular shootings and drug and prostitution incidents.

"They have had experience with other nightclubs. They are not just making this up," ABC Commission lawyer Renee Cowick said during her closing arguments. "An ABC permit is not a property right. A permit grants a privilege. It is completely within our discretion to judge the suitability of a location. Mr. Mills hadn't even submitted his application and there were concerns about his location.

"Certainly the commission can take that (community concern) into consideration."

And it's more than just the specter of drugs, gang activity and violent crime that has residents concerned.

They also are worried that an already bad intersection at N.C. 55 and N.C. 903 will be made even more dangerous by the likely increase of drunken drivers.

"It's just wrecks, wrecks, wrecks," said Donna Hardy, adding that the neighborhood is already seeing one to two collisions a week on that stretch of road.

Mary Christine Detwiler said the club's child care center encourages people to carry their youngsters with them in the car after a night of drinking and dancing.

"I just don't think children and alcohol should meet," Ms. Detwiler said.

The other major concern voiced by the club's neighbors was its noise level, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

Mills testified, however, that the club has never been cited for an excessive noise violation.

He also explained that the child care center and the outdoor attractions -- go-carts, though they have yet to run -- were all included to create a more family-oriented atmosphere, and that his installation of a metal detector and hiring of a security team were all decisions made to ensure the safety of the club. Overall, he added, he has invested approximately $1 million in the establishment.

But perhaps most important, Mills testified, nobody spoke in opposition to his plans when he applied to the Lenoir County Planning Commission for a special-use permit.

Nor, noted his lawyer John Dees, were there any official complaints made when he applied for his beer permit -- just some e-mails that floated around the ABC Commission office.

"We're saying the applicant has gone beyond the pale in trying to make his business suitable for this ABC permit and the denial of that we contend ... is simply arbitrary and capricious," Dees said.

"I just felt like they (Hispanics) needed a place they could go with their families," Mills added. "That's more or less why I built it. I'm trying to do this for family-oriented people.

"I don't want no problems in the neighborhood. I'm trying to run it to the best of my ability."