Ban on liquor stores hurts businessman

May 27, 2014

West Allis — No new liquor stores will be allowed to open in downtown West Allis, the Common Council decided last week.

Aldermen and business owners alike want to upgrade the downtown.

The problem has been that homeless people and others have been buying liquor, consuming it in public and leaving bottles and other liter around the area, said Alderman Tom Lajsic. Nevertheless, Lajsic said he was uncomfortable supporting the ban that he felt had an anti-business tinge.

However, both aldermen representing the downtown, deemed to be Greenfield Avenue from 70th to 76th streets, strongly favored the ban. One of them, Alderwoman Cathleen Probst, said the goal was to raise the image of the downtown district so better businesses would come in.

Also she said, downtown business owners would say privately that they support the ban. But the Downtown Business Improvement District has taken a neutral stand on the ban because it doesn't want to be seen as anti-business, Probst said.

"Individually, they are all in favor," she said.

The one liquor store downtown will not be affected by the rezoning the council approved.

A liquor store that will be affected is the Super Bottle and Tobacco Depot, 1357 S. 76th St., where owner Omer Audi bought a long-vacant building at South 76th Street and West Greenfield Avenue and planned to move his business into it.

The move would have involved going across the street from his current location, but it would involve moving into the business district.

To do due diligence, Audi said he contacted the city before he bought the building to make sure liquor stores were allowed in the business district. At that time, they were. In April, the common council approved a temporary moratorium on new liquor stores downtown.

When that happened, Audi could not apply to operate in the business district and possibly be eligible for the same kind of grandfather arrangement that now protects the current liquor store.

"I understand their concerns about single cans and I respect their concerns," Audi said this week. "All I can say is, I should have been grandfathered in because of what they indicated to me before I bought the building.

"I think it's appalling that they don't want business in their district or business to expand in their district. I have no hard feelings.

"But small business is very hard, just paying the utility bills, and then to do something like this against a small business isn't right."

Alderman Vince Vitale pushed for some kind of accommodation for Audi. It would only be fair, he said.

While some aldermen also were sympathetic, the problem remained Audi's lack of standing because he didn't apply before the moratorium.

Alderman Michael May said, "We need to make sure it's good policy without prejudice," so the common council cannot take such individual circumstances into consideration.

Audi said he will put the disputed building that used to house Old Owl Imports up for sale.

"It could sit vacant for a long time," Audi said.

The main question that stalled approval of the new liquor store ban two weeks ago was the worry that businesses the downtown wants to attract might not be allowed if they also sold liquor. The example used was the West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shoppe.

Because of that concern, the proposed ban was modified to clarify that such businesses would be allowed because they would not carry a full liquor license.

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