Where everyone knows his name

When Rob Strong and his business partners leased the former Kiln Time building on East Fifth Street to open a general store in the historic Oregon District, the location had been vacant for four years. In the meantime, it had become an eyesore, with the windows painted black and the recessed entrance occasionally used as a toilet by indigents.

After three months of renovations, the windows were cleared, the entrance was cleaned, and a swing sign was hung above the sidewalk. The shelves were stocked with everything from Lucky Strikes to toothpaste – everything that is, except beer or wine, a problematic state of affairs, given the store’s name, Fifth Street Wine and Deli. Not surprisingly, the contradiction caught some customers off guard.

“We aren’t marketing it,” Strong told us a few weeks ago. “But people come to by wine, because they see ‘wine’ in our business name. They get really irritated, turn around and walk right out. They don’t look around to see what other products we have.”

Since opening his store last year, Strong has shelved out roughly $12,000 in attorney fees alone in his efforts to navigate a confusing bureaucratic morass of hearings, background checks, and a seemingly endless series of meetings. But last Monday (Jan. 30), seven months after the deli opened its doors to customers, Strong finally received word that he could have his license as soon as next month.

But tensions linger. Strong’s liquor license application sparked an ongoing feud between two organizations operating in the district, one representing the interests of neighborhood residents, the other, the interests of area business owners. The dispute has polarized the neighborhood, and saw members of both camps accusing one another of questionable behavior.

At the heart of the dispute was an informal resolution placing a cap on the number of active liquor licenses in the district. Adopted by the Dayton City Commission at the urging of the Oregon Historic District Society, it limited the number of active licenses to 17, the number currently active in the district. Because Strong’s license would be the 18th, the city commission filed a formal objection to his application. But the Liquor Control Commission, after hearing testimony from residents and others active in the district, has overruled the objection, in essence nullifying the cap.

As co-owner of Oregon District restaurant Thai 9, which itself ran into trouble obtaining a liquor license, Strong knew possible complications could arise, but he never fathomed the level of opposition he would encounter or the controversy his application would stir up. Some residents fear that removing the cap could weaken the city’s authority to object to the issuance of future liquor licenses and open the way for new liquor-serving establishments, threatening the property values and quality of life in the residential area of the district.

Last February, before Strong had even applied for the license, the Historic Society’s Board of Trustees voted in a private meeting to oppose it. Critics pointed out that the board decided the matter without first soliciting input from the residents whose interests it purported to represent.

Those in favor of lifting the cap have come to see this private meeting as an attempt to attract as little attention to the decision as possible.

“I don’t think anybody knew that this would be such a controversial issue,” said Monica Snow, who today is President of the Historic Society and was present at the meeting. She was quick to point out that the board’s decision only affirmed a longstanding policy. “I think that everybody at that meeting just assumed that that was the sentiment of the neighborhood.”

Kevin Carver, Executive Director of the Oregon District Business Association, which represents some 30 of the roughly 100 businesses in the district, thinks the Historic Society is behind the times. The business association has asked the city commission to lift the cap and last December presented a petition of more than 300 names, including the names of district business owners, employees, and residents, at a Historic Society meeting.

A signature-by-signature analysis of the petition by the Historic Society shows that, of the 732 total residents, 248 provided valid signatures (roughly 34 percent of residents); of the 251 members of the Historic Society, 101 members signed (roughly 40 percent). Reactions to the petition among the board of trustees varied, but it did nothing to alter the organization’s position.

“We all want positive development on Fifth Street, and the opportunities and the challenges to that future development aren’t going to be solved by circulating a petition,” said Snow, though she claimed she was reluctant to position herself on either side of the dispute because of her role as President.

Carver, for his part, admitted that the district has had problems in the past with liquor- serving establishments. In their testimony before the Liquor Control Commission, several residents complained of excessive noise, violence, vandalism, litter, and public urination. Nevertheless, Carver maintained that the district has changed in the years since the resolution was adopted.

“The [Business Association’s] position is that the district is a dramatically different place than it was 25 years ago,” Carver said. “The direction it’s taking is more toward upscale taverns and restaurants. Look at places like Thai 9 or Coco’s. Aren’t they assets to the district and the city? Shouldn’t our policies encourage more of that? We don’t believe [an arbitrary limit] makes logical sense.”

The conflict has become emotional for some. A Historic Society meeting this January, which did little to resolve the issue, was by all accounts a contentious affair.

“I didn’t expect it to be that heated,” Strong said. “I didn’t expect people slamming their fists on the table and standing up, yelling and pointing fingers.”

The contention stemmed, in large part, from an e-mail Carver had sent out the day before a Historic Society election to fill a vacancy on its board of trustees. In the e-mail, Carver outlined the Historic Society’s open-door membership policy.

The e-mail, to which a Historic Society membership was attached, read, “We have a real opportunity to change the OHDS policies that are hindering economic development in the district. You do not have to live in the district in order to join and vote. Your employees can join and vote... your friends can join and vote... your family can join and vote! What is important is the numbers of votes at this point that can be cast on Tuesday night to elect Mike Martin [Vice President of the Business Association] to the Board.”

Carver then went on to suggest, in so many words, that business owners pay the memberships fees for their employees and encourage them to attend the meeting to vote. “Please let folks know that they don’t have to stay for the entire meeting,” he added.

The day after the meeting, Carver was a little out of sorts. “I would say there were several people who got up and were very emotional and agitated,” he said. “A couple of people pointed at me and said, ‘What he did was highly unethical,’ and that I should resign or be fired. Most people don’t react well when somebody says slanderous things about you, and certainly, I didn’t react well, internally, but I didn’t respond. A public meeting isn’t an appropriate forum to air your raw motions. It could set up hurdles and barriers that must be overcome later.”

One of those critical of Carver was David Grahl, a district resident for 15 years. Grahl saw Carver’s e-mail as a deliberate attempt to manipulate the Historic Society’s election process and undermine the organization’s integrity.

“There are people who see no problem with it and there are people like me [who] were very angry about it,” said Grahl. “I question why it is the business of the [Business Association] to try to change our policies to fit their agenda. The only issue mentioned [in the e-mail] was the liquor policy. So we know what this was about. If they can’t win in front of the City Commission, they have to take over our board of trustees? Give me a break. I’ve never seen trustee elections politicized in this way.”

Strong said the open-door membership policy is a common community practice. “That’s his opinion,” said Strong of Grahl, who paid for three of his own employees’ memberships. “It wasn’t just for them [the employees] to vote, but to become members. It’s in the constitution and it’s legal. Other communities encourage that type of practice.”

In a letter to Mayor Rhine McLin and city commissioners, Grahl wrote, “I suspect the real agenda behind the deli and the petition is to bust the cap by pushing the permit through the state board or, failing that, to pressure the commission to drop your objection and thereby eliminate the only means of protection the residents have to regulate the quality of life here in the Oregon.”

Snow also wrote a letter to city commissioners this January, issuing what some have perceived as a threat, informing the commission that, should the cap be lifted, the city and both district organizations would face the possibility of a lawsuit and unwanted media attention.

Snow’s letter, in which she referred to the dispute as an “emotional lightning rod and political scapegoat,” accused the commission of “collaborating with the [Business Association] and ignoring the concerns of neighborhood leaders,” It read in part: “A small but vocal group of homeowners who have dedicated their lives to this neighborhood are prepared to put their homes up for sale, leave the city of Dayton and retain legal counsel for any damages they suffer. They are also prepared to go to the media. Unfortunately, in a district with less than 200 structures, a few vocal property owners can have a significant impact on the market’s perception of the real state market in the district.”

Snow said that this portion of the letter referred to an anonymous note she received in her mailbox on the night of a city commission meeting.

“[It was] an anonymous communication from a group of concerned homeowners,” she said. “I’m not part of that group, and to this day I do not know who they are. They were concerned about declining property values. I did speak to a person on our board who is an attorney and was told that, because this is an informal resolution and not a law on the books, there would be no grounds whatsoever.”

Even with a latest favorable decision from the Liquor Control Commission, it is still not a forgone conclusion that Strong will get his license. The decision overrides the city commission’s resolution but provides a 30-day period during which the city has the option to appeal. It is too early to tell whether the city will do so. A representative for the city said the commission is awaiting a recommendation from its law department. 

Snow declined to comment on the decision, saying only that, “The development challenges and opportunities on Fifth Street remain, and we have to address both as a community.”

Whatever happens, Strong said he has no plans to change the name of his store. “If we don’t get our liquor license, our name will be the same,” he said. “But we’ll change the spelling of wine to ‘whine.’ Already in our ads, it’s ‘wine’ scratched out, and ‘whine’ written in.”

Asked whether he thought it was wise for Strong to have included “wine” in the store’s name in the first place, knowing he might have trouble getting his license, Grahl said, “That’s kind of like putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it?”