Plans to revive an old Allentown social club may be damned by the bad reputation of the place that club plans to call its new home.
What might have been a routine liquor license transfer stirred opposition from both residents and some city officials in a lengthy hearing before Allentown City Council Wednesday night.
If approved by council, the liquor license would be transferred to 1139 Union Blvd., formerly Tony's Pizza, in east Allentown.
Plans are for that property to become the new private club for the American Citizens Slavonic Society of Allentown, Inc.
The license is being transferred from Lower Milford Township Fire Company No. 1.
Council intended to make a decision on the inter-municipal liquor license transfer during its 7 p.m. meeting, which followed the 6 p.m. hearing.
But that didn't happen.
Instead, action on the license transfer was tabled at the request of Atty. Matthew Croslis, who represented the Slavonic Society.
"I didn't realize it would be this controversial," said Croslis, who is the former Lehigh County executive.
Croslis made the request to table after the former operation of Tony's Pizza restaurant and bar was criticized by an Allentown police captain, the director of the city's health bureau and several residents.
They indicated many more people living near that place have complaints about the past operation -- including noise, litter, broken bottles, drugs and even bar customers urinating in public - but one man said those neighbors were afraid to show up at the liquor license hearing.
"I will try to bring it back with all the concerns addressed," promised Croslis.
But he noted if the neighbors are going to be calling the police on what will be a law-abiding club, "maybe we should look for another place. But we have a lot of time invested in this."
Council's role was to determine if the license transfer "will adversely affect the health, safety, general welfare of morals of the public."
At the center of the controversy was 62-year-old Tony El-Chaar, who owns the property and will lease it to the club.
In addition to El-Chaar being the club's landlord, it planned to hire him as its cook. Croslis said the club will serve its members inexpensive meals as well as alcohol.
Vicky Kistler, the health bureau director, asked City Council for more time so she can present it with a list of health, fire and other city violations that were El-Chaar's responsibility.
"I know we have fire and health violations," said Kistler. "Some of them have been addressed but I'm not convinced that all of them have been addressed." She also said those violations have been chronic.
Based on Kistler's comments, council voted 7-0 that approval of the liquor license transfer would be contingent on conformity with zoning, health and other applicable city codes.
Croslis assured council the social club is going to fix anything that's wrong with the property. He said the club will comply with all city ordinances and regulations, including those involving serving food. "That's why they hired me," he said.
Kistler said city administrators had been led to believe El-Chaar would not be involved with the social club except as its landlord.
Croslis said El-Chaar is more interested getting the lease with the club than working as a cook for the club's members.
Croslis apologizes to council
Council member Daryl Hendricks told Croslis he also feels like he was deceived, because he thought there was a clear delineation between El-Chaar and the prospective new tenants.
Council member Joe Davis, who lives in east Allentown, supports the social club's plans.
"Everybody's talking about what's been happening in the past," said Davis. He would rather see a social club at that location than another bar.
Council member Cynthia Mota agreed with Davis, but also was unhappy that council had been given misleading answers.
Croslis insisted there was no intent to deceive or hide any information, adding: "If it came out that way, I apologize."
City Council could not simply delay action on the transfer request because it was running out of time. If it did not act within 45 days of Feb. 10, the transfer automatically would have been approved.
"We're at 37 days right now," said council member Ray O'Connell.
Assistant city solicitor Dale Wiles said the applicant could agree to an extension.
City Council only approves liquor license transfers from other municipalities.
Council member Peter Schweyer explained if a liquor license is transferred from one establishment to another, it does not come before City Council for approval.
"That's just state law," he explained.
Schweyer said El-Chaar could get such a transferred license and reopen his bar and pizza shop.
"Is the Slovak club operating a private club a better option than taking the long-term risk of Tony buying his own liquor license or somebody else acquiring that property and doing their own liquor license that we'll have no control over?" asked Schweyer.
Saying clubs like the Slavonic Society are part of the fabric of the city, O'Connell said the choice is an established club that has to abide by all the Liquor Control Board rules and regulations or another nuisance bar at that location.
Slavonic Society history
Croslis said the non-profit Slavonic club was been in existence since 1919 and had a liquor license for 70 years, with no citations for liquor law violations.
The club's last home was in the basement of Holy Spirit elementary school, a Catholic school in the city. The club's quarters had a bar, TVs, a juke box and even two bowling alleys.
Croslis said in 2004, the Allentown Catholic Diocese evicted the club from the school basement. "They decided they didn't want a bar in the basement of an elementary school and I can't blame them."
He told City Council he has a personal interest in representing the social club: "I was a member and I actually bartended there when I was in law school."
He said the club's members have been looking for another place since 2004.
Because the club could not find another home, it eventually lost its liquor license.
"This is a bunch of guys - and women, but mostly guys - who are just looking to get back what they had when they were evicted in 2004," said the lawyer.
"The only way a non-profit club like this can get another license is to purchase one from another non-profit club," explained Croslis.
Croslis said he's been working with the club for years to find another location and license. He said it still has a core of active members that would like to see the social club reopen.
He stressed it will be a private, members-only social club, not a bar open to the public. He said all potential members have to go through a criminal background check and their membership has to be unanimously approved by the club's board.
He also said the club will not lease the place to others, such as for wedding receptions or other parties. Nor will bands perform there.
Croslis said the club could remain open till 2 a.m. but he expects it will close by midnight. "It's not a bunch of young guys sitting around."
Not enough members?
Also briefly testifying was Andrew Osika, vice president of the social club. He said it was a family gathering place and "we never had any problems." He estimated about 20 people are interested in restarting the club.
Hendricks questioned whether the social club has enough members to afford to pay the rent. He's concerned that the same people who frequented the bar when it was open to the public will attempt to become members of the Slavonic Society club.
"Then we're going to have the same problems we had before," said Hendricks.
Croslis said the club will rebuild its membership. He no longer is an active member, but will become one.
Kistler said she once was a member of the Slavonic Society social club, but no one ever did a background check on her unless it was done without her knowledge.
She said she never saw disturbances or problems when the club was in the school basement and that it was very family-oriented, although she added: "Some of them drank too much."
Croslis assured Kistler the club will not serve intoxicated people.
"That's the law," he said. "I educate all my clients that you can't serve visibly intoxicated people. They'd lose their license. It's taken me five years to get them this license; I don't want them to lose it."
Problems at Tony's
Croslis initially said Tony's Pizza became a nuisance bar a couple of years ago, when El-Chaar leased it to other operators. He told council he represented El-Chaar at the time and played a role in shutting down those tenants.
"I don't like nuisance bars," declared Croslis.
Allentown police captain Tony Alsleben told council that police dealt with numerous incidents when the previous business was operating at 1139 Union Blvd. He mentioned noise complaints, drug arrests and shootings.
While Croslis focused on problems that happened when El-Chaar leased the place to other operators, Alsleben said many of the disturbances happened before that, when El-Chaar was running the business.
"What's going to change?" the captain repeatedly asked council.
El-Chaar told council he doesn't want to deal with a bar any more. "Plus I want to deal with good people," he added.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald accused Croslis of being disingenuous in his presentation. "It's a different spin on the story now," she said. "I'm grateful that the captain brought that to our attention."
Croslis said El-Chaar rented the former bar to other operators because things got out of hand and he thought they could control it.
"I wasn't trying to mislead you," he said.
Richard Wilburn, president of the Midway Manor Community Association in east Allentown, told council: "We're hoping that the decision you make this evening is going to be good for the east side. We believe a good decision for the east side is to not allow any additional liquor licenses in that part of the city.
"East side has enough liquor licenses. We do not want to issue another one."
Wilburn said that position is based on other problems residents already face in east Allentown "as well as problems that had existed at Tony's."
Dennis Pearson, president of the East Allentown Rittersville Neighborhood Association, said his organization also does not endorse the social club operating at that Union Boulevard address.
Pearson suggested El-Chaar, the property owner, intends to continue operating a grill there, in addition to the social club.
Said El-Chaar to Pearson: "My friend, you cannot not tell me about my place. When you walk in the place, then tell me about my place."