By Ted Slowik
Daily Southtown | Jan 13
Owners of bars, restaurants and clubs in Harvey are speaking out about enforcement actions they say threaten survival of their businesses and livelihoods of hundreds of employees.
They are asking Mayor Christopher Clark to be more fair about collecting taxes and license fees and to allow businesses to operate during the pandemic.
“All our employees are not working,” said Lynn Hudson-Brown, owner of Sugababyyy’s Sports Bar & Grill, 15414 Park Ave. “Some are single mothers.”
Clark said he is willing to work with business owners.
“I’m not unreasonable,” he said. “If we’re requiring you to pay something and you’re not able to pay … I’m more than willing to work with you. But you have to be willing to open up your books and show us what we’re dealing with.”
Hudson-Brown and other holders of the 40 or so liquor licenses in town said they paid $10,000 on short notice in September in response to demands by the mayor. Clark said a recent audit uncovered a 2008 ordinance that required liquor license holders pay monthly excise taxes to the city.
Hudson-Brown said Clark demanded immediate payment for years’ worth of unpaid excise taxes just as she paid thousands of dollars to renew her business and liquor licenses.
“I said, ‘You just got money yesterday, now you want money today, and all of this is at the last second,’” Hudson-Brown said. “On top of that there’s been a pandemic.”
Liquor license holders said the excise taxes demanded by the city were equal to the amount of sales taxes they paid each month to the state.
Jeff Williams, owner of The Public League Lounge Bar & Grill, 15200 Dixie Highway, said his business has been closed for months. He said he did everything the city asked in order to renew his business license, including paying $10,000 in September for excise taxes that were previously uncollected.
“We haven’t got our license yet,” Williams said. “We built a patio last year. We bought tents and heaters. We paid $10,000 for the excise taxes, too.”
Clark said he has a different way of doing business than his predecessor. Clark defeated former Mayor Eric Kellogg in April. 2019.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m poor, can you just give me a break?’” Clark said. “That’s what the previous administration was doing. In my opinion there was a lot of unethical behavior that was going along with that.”
Hudson-Brown said Sugababyyy’s was completely closed from March through May. When COVID-19 restriction eased and she reopened for outdoor rooftop and patio dining, police began ticketing her patrons’ vehicles, she said.
Her establishment is located across from a Metra train station and the Pace Suburban Bus Harvey Transportation Center. Concrete curbs have crumbled, making it difficult to tell where the street ends and the sidewalk begins.
“The police would be out there for hours, walking up and down the street with their ticket books,” Hudson-Brown said. “They said you can’t have tires on the sidewalk. That’s been the situation for years, but it was never enforced before.”
Hudson-Brown said she began feeling harassed in fall 2019 when Clark and the Harvey City Council adopted an ordinance that required businesses with liquor licenses to close at midnight.
“I started speaking up about how that would affect my business,” she said. “Soon thereafter I became a target.”
Clark ran on a platform of cleaning up Harvey’s image.
“I’m trying to do everything the right way,” he said. “I understand people may not always like it. They better get ready because the change is here. It’s happening, and it’s for the positive.”
In February 2020, three aldermen reversed their votes on the midnight-closing ordinance, but Clark vetoed their attempt to repeal the restrictions. Then the pandemic hit and crippled revenues for businesses and the city.
Cook County’s oppressive property taxes add to the burdens threatening survival of many businesses in Harvey.
“I have paid $80,000 a year in property taxes since I have been here,” said Joe Brooks, owner of The Entrance and The Venue, 15101 Dixie Highway.
Brooks said his family invested $500,000 in 2017 to renovate a building on property that formerly was part of Dixie Square Mall. The 14,000-square-foot space housed a bar, restaurant and concert hall before COVID-19 halted operations, he said.
The pandemic is helping the mayor’s efforts to clean up the town’s image by forcing bars and clubs out of business, Brooks said.
“I understand abiding by COVID restrictions,” he said. “That plays into his hands. Other towns around us have some empathy for their businesses. They try to do something for them. Not us.”
Clark said liquor license holders must be willing to open their books if they want the city to work with them on taxes and license fees.
“Most of these businesses operate in cash,” he said. “A lot of this money is not reported to the city of Harvey.”
There are discrepancies between what business owners are reporting in sales to the city compared to what they report to state revenue officials, he said. Hudson-Brown’s bar reported about $450,000 in annual liquor sales to the state, Clark said.
“All I’m trying to do is collect on the taxes that we are supposed to get,” Clark said. “All I’m trying to do is generate revenue for the city.”
Annette Smith owns three establishments in Harvey. Boogie Nights, 14701 S. Wood St., advertises itself as a gentlemen’s club. Boogie Eats, 85 W. 147th St., formerly was Arnie’s Idle Hour restaurant and pizzeria. Let’s Play, 15420 Dixie Highway, is a popular club where a fatal shooting occurred in 2019.
City officials wrongly blamed bars and clubs for violence in Harvey, Smith and others said. Shootings and other violence have continued in residential neighborhoods, they said, despite bars and clubs being closed for the most part.
“I grew up here,” Smith said. “I was here when it was Harvey, at it peak.”
The town of about 25,000 residents has faced employment, tax revenue and other economic challenges shared by other south suburban communities in recent years. Smith said she recently was approach by a developer who offered to buy her three businesses.
“I said, ‘This is not for sale,’” Smith said. “He wanted me to sell. He said, ‘You’ll never be able to remain open.’”
Clark and business owners shared opposing views about paying for public safety and other services.
“I’m not trying to put them out of business,” Clark said. “Police are a constant presence at those locations. That costs the taxpayers money. Why should the taxpayers of the city of Harvey continue to provide those resources?”
John Hamilton of Club O, 17038 S. Halsted St., said his club’s security officers have served the Harvey community by providing public safety.
“There have been incidents near our property, like a shooting at a gas station down the street,” he said.
Club O security workers are off-duty police officers in other communities and detained suspects involved in the gas station shooting until Harvey police responded, he said.
“If you’re the police, you’re the police 24/7,” Hamilton said. “You’re not going to watch someone get shot and not doing something about it.”
Hamilton and other liquor license holders said elected officials, community leaders and tourists visit their venues when they are not closed because of the pandemic.
“It’s not a strip club,” Hamilton said of Club O. “It’s a nightclub that has dancers.”
At 80,000 square feet, Club O is the largest venue in Harvey, he said. The business employs dozens of Harvey residents as servers, dancers, cooks, security and other positions, he said.
“This is not like in the old days when you would go into the back of these clubs,” he said. “It’s just drinking and dancing.”
Original article: chicagotribune.com