Alcohol and late night clubs are often blamed for the frequency of bar break violence in downtown Anchorage. The last few months have seen shootings, fights, and even a massive unsanctioned street dance party that was cleared by police officers in riot gear last November.
The Anchorage Assembly is casting an unusual amount of scrutiny on a pending liquor license transfer that’s raising questions about how businesses that sell liquor should develop downtown.
The LED Lounge hasn’t officially opened, and on a recent Thursday afternoon there was construction debris and a few workmen installing swanky decor.
“I think we have one of the largest–if not the largest kitchen in the state of Alaska,” said Robert Alexander, owner and operator of the business. He shows off a huge menu covered in small print for the Italian, Chinese, and Southern cuisine he plans to serve out of the half-finished industrial kitchen in the back of the building, which he rents from the owner.
The menu is for the restaurant side of the business, Tri-Grill, but the other half of the space is for the LED Lounge, consisting so far of a bar, a small dance floor, and lots of colorful glowing lights built into the tables and walls. That is the side that’s led to a series of procedural snags in the Anchorage Assembly.
Plans have been on hold since Assembly member Patrick Flynn delayed the transfer to give the public an opportunity to testify, which opened the door for possible protest from the Minicipality.
Alexander’s building at the corner of 6th Avenue and I St. used to house Platinum Jaxx, a nightclub with a reputation as a bad operator in the neighborhood. It closed last summer. Now a group of property and business owners in the area think the LED Lounge will bring the same problems.
At the heart of the matter is what kind of business Alexander plans on bringing in.
“We will turn up the music on the weekends because more people come out on the weekends,” explains Alexander. “Does that make us a nightclub? No.”
In weighing whether or not to block the transfer, the Assembly is picking apart Alexander’s 20-year business career in Anchorage. Recently, the Public Safety Committee gathered to hear more information on the issue, and assembly members asked Alexander questions about his plans for late-night security. But they also brought up a civil court case finding that Alexander had let his worker’s compensation insurance lapse repeatedly over a period of two years.
That ruling is under appeal, but in the meantime Alexander’s full businesses record is fair game for assessing the permit transfer.
“He was assessed a fine of over a million dollars for those violations,” said Assembly member Bill Evans after the meeting. “There was a detailed report which shows a lot of dis-concern and a lot of failure to report, failure to cooperate with the board. So that’s been an issue that the Assembly is going to at least consider in deciding whether he should be granted the liquor license.”
Booze is big business in Anchorage, and operators pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain permits from one another. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board technically has authority over the transfers, but typically defers to decisions from local governing bodies. The thought being that those who live in work in a particular town or neighborhood know better what liquor may bring to the area.
Assembly member Evans believes the long shadow cast by Platinum Jaxx over the area merits the detailed review of Alexander’s record.
“This is a bit unusual, most of these transfers go through usually without this kind of scrutiny,” said Evans. “Part of the issue here is that a lot of the neighbors were really upset about it. They raised concerns. And I think it caused the Assembly to look at this a little more closely.”
The chorus of property owners opposing the transfer is small, but vocal, and they insist you cannot protect home or business values while serving booze until bar break next door. Chris Schutte directs the Anchorage Downtown partnership, which took the unusual step of registering its objection to the transfer, a first for the organization.
“Given the neighborhood’s previous experience, confidence in an incoming operator is really important,” Schutte said by phone. “Without that confidence there, and without assurances there, perhaps tied to the license transfer, the neighborhood will not feel comfortable with this operator coming in.”
Schutte proposes conditions be attached to the permit, like an earlier closing time and set ratio of food to alcohol sales.
Alexander admits that while his business record is not spotless, that is not unusual when you grow over so long a career. And most of the faults brought up by the Assembly had to do with a period of rapid expansion. Since then, he has taken on a director of operations to manage finances. But he thinks the degree of scrutiny he is under is exceptional, and feels unfairly judged.
“I haven’t done anything yet, you know? You gotta give me a chance,” he said, pausing. “I just hope this whole thing goes away quick so that it becomes old news.”
The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the transfer at its first meeting in February.