Springfield is now the battleground in Chicago’s politics of booze

Under a new proposal, the city's liquor commissioner could shut down a store for a month

March 19, 2013

(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
A typical liquor store sign in Chicago.

Eaid Masud manages Skip’s Food & Liquor on 55th and Damen. On a recent weekday morning, he’s at the register ringing up meats, canned food and snacks. Behind him, the wide shelves brim with a rainbow of alcohol — everything from the cheap stuff to the high end.

This store could be in a kind of jeopardy. On Wednesday the executive committee in the Illinois House approved a bill that would allow Chicago to close liquor stores for up to 30 days when they’re the stage for criminal activity or they threaten “the welfare of the community.” Current law allows the city to close such establishments for just seven days.

Support from the full House is still needed.

Not that Masud is worried. He said Skip’s is a family-owned business that’s a part of the West Englewood community. But Masud is aware liquor stores can sometimes attract crime.

“There should definitely be more police presence in the areas where they think there’s activity like that going on,” he said.

Still, neighbors have complained about the store and, as Masud acknowledges, Skip’s deals with people who loiter or illegally sell loose cigarettes in the parking lot. He said if he sees drug dealing, he calls the police.

“We act accordingly and call authorities but sometimes like during the summers there’s a lot of teenagers and maybe fighting outside or along the streets,” he said. “It’s out of our control. It’s nothing we allow; it just happens.”

State Rep. Esther Golar, a Democrat, introduced the bill. She said she’s fed up with drug dealing and shootings at liquor stores. Her district is in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, which she dubs a liquor corridor with up to 60 such establishments.

“These liquor licensees, which are the owners, they have knowledge of this,” Golar said. “Many times they’re either too scared, they do not care or many times they’re complicit in allowing these illegal activities to occur.

Golar’s bill would allow the liquor commissioner to shutter an errant store for 30 days — up from the current seven days. An investigation and a hearing would take place during that time.

“We wouldn’t be doing anything that’s not in the law right now,” Golar said. “It’s just that we need more time. Rather than having a store close down for seven days, they reopen up with the same issues. I’ve seen this over and over again. And what does it do for the community? The negative impact these stores have.”

The problems and politics surrounding liquor stores problems aren’t limited to Englewood. Booze is a quality of life issue in many communities. In some, residents feel store owners show them too little respect and, in others, they’ve effectively removed malt liquor or otherwise dictated what alcohol a store can sell. In other areas, voters approved measures that turned entire precincts dry. After a long fight, Bronzeville got one store shut down.

The East Village Association is happy with a moratorium on packaged liquor stores from Division Street to Augusta Boulevard. The area had been populated by Latino immigrants. A wave of gentrification has washed over the community and new residents say they want to eliminate liquor-store vagrancy and crimes.

“Drunks hanging out on the streets led to crime,” said Neal McKnight, president of the association and a supporter of Golar’s bill.

“Anything that gives sort of a little bit of teeth to the liquor commissioner in dealing with difficult businesses is good for me,” he says. “When they [liquor stores] go bad it’s really difficult to get them to close ... fighting tooth and nail with the businesses.”

The East Village group has voted to lift a liquor-ban moratorium, subject to approval by the liquor commissioner, that would allow a convenience store to only sell beer and wine. No malt liquor, Wild Irish Rose or single bottle sales unless it’s a craft beer.

Originally, the group wanted to ban mass-market beers such as Budweiser but scaled back. McKnight said the board recently decided such a limitation would be overlimiting.

Last year Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city would be aggressive in collecting data on problem businesses. Convenience stores and liquor stores are placed on the monthly flagged business list and subject to increased inspections by all city departments. Since April 2012, the city has taken disciplinary action on 89 liquor establishments and revoked 19 licenses.

A spokeswoman for Emanuel says Golar’s bill would complement the city’s efforts, as it would target liquor stores that have been on a list of trouble building.

However, the caveats and qualifications don’t satisfy Jerry Rosen of the Beverage Retailers Alliance of Illinois.

“It’s the most horrible bill I ever heard,” Rosen said, adding that problem liquor stores should be the province for police.

“It totally flies in the face of a retailer’s rights,” he said. “They’re just taking away any rights he may have. When you shut somebody down because somebody made a complaint or an accusation of a criminal activity, you’re in essence almost putting them out of business.”

Illinois has a 30-day credit law for distributors of wine and spirits to purchase those beverages. Rosen says this new liquor law could end up putting someone out of business permanently, and an army of lawyers is fighting the bill.

Rosen’s prediction: Golar’s measure will be ruled unconstitutional and doesn’t stand a chance.

Still, with the current state of Chicago booze politics, Rosen said he’s ready to testify against the bill, if need be.