Congress Theater liquor license revoked

But venue can continue operating pending appeal

May 24, 2013

UPDATED 4:45 P.M.: NEW COMMENTS ON THE APPEAL AND THE PORTAGE THEATER

Controversial Congress Theater owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza has lost his liquor license at the embattled Logan Square concert venue.

“We will appeal,” Carranza said.

Despite the city’s revocation of the liquor license, state law allows a venue to continue to sell alcohol during the appeals process.

The city issued an order to police to close the venue. But Carranza’s attorney Harlan Powell said the appeal was filed this afternoon and copies were forwarded to police, who should allow the next public event, a Latin music show on Sunday afternoon, to continue as scheduled.

Today’s decision from the Liquor Control Commission comes after three sessions of sometimes harrowing testimony before Hearings Commissioner Robert Nolan. His verdict made clear that he believed the charges made by the police officers who testified at those hearings.

According to Nolan’s ruling, the Congress “failed to report promptly to the police department illegal activity” and that “within 12 consecutive months five separate incidents occurred… involving acts that violated a state law regulating narcotics or controlled substances.”

“I’m certainly not happy with the ruling,” Powell said. He noted that it upheld only two of the five counts the city brought against the Congress. “I’m very optimistic,” he said of the appeal.

The first stop in that process: The city’s License Appeal Commission. Then comes circuit court, appeals court, and finally state supreme court if necessary.

Carranza has been fighting the city on several fronts for more than a year regarding the future of the 87-year-old, 5,000-capacity theater, which has become a hotspot for electronic dance music and hip-hop concerts under his ownership.

Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance hearings based on complaints from neighbors and area residents began in March 2012, following the rape of a concert patron who’d been turned away from the venue that New Year’s Eve.

Early this year, the city Building Department closed the top two floors of the venue to concertgoers. On April 12, the city filed a lawsuit seeking the immediate closure of the whole building, citing a literally A-to-Z list of “hazardous and dangerous” code violations compiled by inspectors from the Health, Building and Fire Departments.

Carranza’s luck seemed to be changing when the city found sufficient progress 10 days later to revoke its request from the court for immediate closure of the building. Yesterday, the Sun-Times ran a story headlined “Congress Theater close to being clear of city violations,” though the top two floors of the venue remain closed.

If the revocation of the liquor license is upheld through the appeal process, it seems unlikely that the Congress can remain a viable music venue. And the future of Carranza’s second venue, the Portage Theater on the Northwest Side, also is thrown into question.

City sources say the revocation of the liquor license at the Congress means Carranza also could not hold a liquor license at the Portage.

“It certainly doesn’t help [Carranza to get a liquor license at the Portage] given what happened at this location [the Congress],” Powell granted.

Portage Park Ald. John Arena recently updated his constituents on the status of the Portage in an email blast to residents:

Since the Portage Theater reopened many years ago, Dennis Wolkowicz and Dave Dziedzic, under Portage Theater Management, LLC, have managed the theater. The corporation is the holder of the liquor and public place of amusement licenses. 

For the city to issue such licenses, the city must vet and approve anyone who owns more than 5 percent of the interest in the corporation. The city also must approve any ownership interest transfer of more than 5 percent. 

As you may recall, Erineo Carranza purchased the Portage Theater building last year. However, and despite some threats to evict the theater operators, Wolkowicz and Dziedzic continued to run the theater and hold the liquor and public place of amusement licenses.

I’ve recently been informed that Wolkowicz and Dziedzic have sold their company to Carranza. Even though the corporation that manages the Portage remains the same, Carranza would still need to apply to transfer the liquor license and public place of amusement license.

As you also probably know, Carranza has a history with the city’s Buildings Department,  Liquor Commissioner, and neighbors at the Congress Theater.

Because of Carranza’s history, I have opposed him receiving a liquor license at the Portage until he can prove that he can be a responsible venue owner and liquor license holder. That opposition continues. 

Carranza’s attorney has notified my office and the Liquor Commissioner that he does not intend to keep controlling interest of the corporation for long. He is looking for a buyer who will manage the theater.

In the mean time, Dennis Wolkowicz continues to manage the theater. Film and live performance programming continues.

Know that I will work hard to ensure that whomever manages the theater on a permanent basis treats our community with respect and is a responsible operator. I will let you know as soon as I know more. 

Powell contradicted Arena’s email, however, saying that the upcoming film events booked by Wolkowicz will not be taking place and that the Portage soon will be closed to the public.

“[The email is] not correct. There will be no entertainment of any kind pending a complete renovation of the building,” Powell said. This is necessary because, “Nobody wants what happened at the Congress to happen at the Portage,” he added.

It is unclear how long the Portage will be closed.

“Eddie’s plan for the Portage is to work with the Alderman’s office and all relevant city agencies, bring the building up to code, and to create a first-class concert venue.”

Earlier reports about Carranza, the Congress and the Portage theaters:

May 1: Is the Congress Theater safe or not?

April 30: Congress Theater defends itself before the Liquor Commission (By Leah Pickett and Jim DeRogatis)

April 23: Congress Theater allowed to remain open, next inspection scheduled (Alison Cuddy reporting)

April 17: City wants the Congress shut down immediately

March 27: Chicago police official: Congress Theater ‘untruthful’ on night of underage drinking (Leah Pickett reporting)

March 8: The fate of the Portage remains a messy mystery

March 6: Congress Theater hearing rescheduled (Robin Amer reporting)

Feb. 22: Congress Theater restoration underway, but it’s got a long way to go

Jan. 16: Congress Theater liquor hearings begin with undercover cop’s testimony

Dec. 3, 2012: A rally to save the Portage Theater ‘as we know it’

Nov. 29, 2012: Congress Theater defaults on $4 million loan

Nov. 28, 2012: The Portage Theater uses Graham Elliot’s name in vain

Nov. 2, 2012: Congress Theater’s new security chief: An ex-cop with a troubled past

Oct. 31, 2012: Congress Theater police calls rank with Soldier Field, United Center

Sept. 23, 2012: How did things turn so bad so fast at the Portage Theater?

Sept. 22, 2012: New Owner of the Portage Theater moves to evict current operators

Sept. 16, 2012: Congress Theater splits with development partner

Sept. 11, 2012: The Portage Theater: What’s Eddie up to?

July 26, 2012: Congress Theater partners up… and looks to expand

April 18, 2012: Chicago officials scrutinize public safety, other neighborhood concerns at Congress Theater (Robin Amer reporting)

April 14, 2012: More trouble at the Congress Theater

March 28, 2012: Critical of Congress security, headliner brings his own

March 25, 2012: Congress Theater responds to complaints

March 22, 2012: City to Congress Theater: Clean up your act!

 

Congress Liquor License Revocation by Chicago Public Media