Construction of downtown watering hole on hold
When Woody Sjostrom originally bought the Towne Lounge, a downtown fixture for the past 46 years, it took him 45 days to complete the process. Now, 11 years later, he has spent six months unsuccessfully attempting to sell his liquor license and extract himself from the bar business.
“I was thinking I would be out of here by the beginning of December,” Sjostrom said during a recent interview at the Towne Lounge. “Now, I’m struggling because I don’t want to be here anymore, but those bills keep coming.”
What’s strange is that he’s found the ideal buyer—young, enthusiastic local entrepreneur Scott Baldwin—who has plans to use the license for an upscale bar in the vacant space adjacent to Cold Stone Ice Cream on West Second Street. But a formal protest filed by Eric Hart, owner of the nearby El Rey Theatre, on Sept. 21 of last year has prompted a lengthy Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control review that has left both Baldwin and Sjostrom in a holding pattern. Sjostrom can’t completely abandon the Towne Lounge, while Baldwin can’t begin construction.
Though Baldwin believes members of the community have a right to protest alcoholic establishments, he is at the end of his patience with the ABC, which has already taken longer than the 175-day window for “investigation, hearing preparation and administrative review” associated with a protested liquor-license application.
“At this point, I’m $30,000 into this, I have no guarantee from the state that it’ll go through, and I’m being held up by one individual,” Baldwin said, visibly distressed. “It’s absolutely absurd, it’s asinine. I think about it when I go to bed, when I wake up, when I’m driving my car, when I’m petting my dog. I don’t think it should be this difficult to do business.”
Hart maintains he is protesting “purely from a business standpoint.” During a recent phone interview, he said he believes Baldwin’s intent to build a high-end bar that doesn’t cater to the college crowd is genuine, but Hart has concerns for the future.
“If [Baldwin’s] concept doesn’t work, he’s going to have to go to Plan B, which will probably be discounted drinks, happy hour, maybe you get different clientele,” he said. “You’ll probably resort back to what works—the LaSalles model.
“The reason I protested it is because I would like him to basically agree to always have [maintaining an upscale establishment] attached to the license.”
According to Hart’s written complaint, he protests the issuance of the liquor license on grounds that:
“The location is within 100 feet of a church. Bidwell Presbyterian Church has been conducting services at 230 West 2nd St. [the El Rey Theatre] for the past three-plus years.
“This area already has a large amount of bars and alcohol establishments and suffers from vandalism and alcohol-related issues such as vomit and waste.
“The relocation or issuing an alcohol license will hurt existing businesses which are already struggling in this area.”
While it is true the El Rey does host a church service on Sundays, to call the theater—which regularly schedules rock and rap acts and sells beer—a church is a bit of a stretch, Sjostrom said. For its part, Bidwell Presbyterian Church has not taken a stance against Baldwin’s project. In an email to Sjostrom dated Nov. 30, Lisa Stone, the church’s business administrator, wrote the church is “here to love and minister to the whole downtown area … whatever it looks like.”
As for the concerns of litter, waste and vomit, ABC’s petition for a conditional license requires petitioners “be responsible for maintaining free of litter the area adjacent to the premises over which they have control.” Violation of the conditions could result in losing his liquor license, Baldwin said.
In regard to a new bar hurting business, Baldwin believes a well-run establishment will generate “lucrative foot traffic” for all the nearby businesses.
While they seem to be at odds, Baldwin and Hart are both optimistic they’ll be able to reach a compromise. Now, it’s just a matter of getting hold of the ABC. Hart, like Baldwin, reports being “absolutely frustrated” by the lack of communication from the state agency, making “multiple phone calls every day” with no response and no date for a hearing in sight.
Meanwhile, Sjostrom continues to oversee the slow demise of the Towne Lounge. The bar used to maintain unusually long hours—6 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day—and employ 15 workers. Now it opens at 2 p.m. and has reduced its staff to three people.
Sjostrom describes the Towne Lounge as “a working man’s bar. We have everything from lawyers and doctors to street people, seven-foot transvestites, cowboys, police and drug dealers. It’s very much a melting pot of Chico.”
The clientele the bar attracts was the property owner’s main reason for refusing to renew the Towne Lounge’s lease, Sjostrom said. When pressed for why he didn’t want to make the move to the West Second Street location himself, he said he simply “doesn’t have 10 years left” in him.