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Food mart owner seeking beer license feels sting of aldermanic privilege

March 22, 2009

By Dave Umhoefer of the Journal Sentinel

March 22, 2009 0

For more than a decade and with little fanfare, Parshotam Singh's cramped little food mart has served mostly down-but-not-out folks in the shadow of Lincoln Court public housing tower on S. Howell Ave.

These days, the Bay View store owner is feeling the squeeze as a trendy nightlife district emerges at a major crossroads in the south side neighborhood.

And his prolonged battle for a beer license has landed him in the middle of a heated argument at Milwaukee City Hall over aldermanic power.

Only beer sales, Singh says, can save his well-worn AK Food Mart at the heart of the district.

Local Ald. Tony Zielinski has blocked him, though, saying he wants a new Bay View and claiming "overconcentration" of alcohol.

The tussle highlights the arbitrary power Milwaukee aldermen can wield over their districts - at a time when they are under increased scrutiny following former Ald. Michael McGee's criminal abuse of the licensing process.

Before Singh's request, Zielinski had backed a bunch of licenses for hip new nightspots and a neighborhood diner within a couple of blocks of AK mart. And just weeks after maneuvering to deny Singh's bid, he pushed through a liquor license for a proposed music club across the street, without notifying any neighbors.

Zielinski's show of muscle has won the day so far, and he defends his backing of redevelopment.

Since last summer when Singh applied, Zielinski has pulled out all the stops, using tactics the Milwaukee Common Council would end or limit if it adopts changes backed last week by a city-created task force.

Unable to persuade Zielinski to schedule AK mart's license request, Singh met with him. Zielinski prodded him to sell the building to developer Tim Dertz, even calling to get a possible price. Singh - not ready to give up his life's labor since coming here from India - says he broke down.

"This is my mother," Singh said he told his alderman. "I don't want to sell my mother."

In November, Singh scored a victory at the city Licenses Committee under unusual circumstances - when the local alderman was opposed. Represented by attorney Michael Maistelman, Singh banked on his longstanding relationship with customers, including many from low-income Lincoln Court's mix of seniors and residents with mental and physical problems. That panel heard overwhelming support from more than 20 people, and only a few minor objections about people loitering outside the store.

But Zielinski then persuaded a majority of the full Common Council to defer to his wishes. The council sent it back to committee. There, Zielinski won by packing the hearing with opponents, including prominent local property owners and the co-owners of popular Café LuLu.

Although police listed no problems at AK mart, opponents at that hearing cited worries about panhandling, litter and public urination in the general vicinity of AK mart, or around Hub Supermarket, an existing beer-selling mini-market on the same strip as Singh's store and LuLu.

Zielinski's forces prevailed. And the committee's and full Common Council's denial in December was based in part on overconcentration of beer and liquor outlets. That prohibits Singh from getting a new hearing on that location for three years.

Then a month later, Zielinski - without notifying any neighbors of the hearing at City Hall - helped push through a license for a new live-music cocktail lounge half a block from AK mart. Among the supporters was Café LuLu's Sarah Jonas, whose brother Paul Jonas would operate the new Tonic Tavern in a building on S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Developer Dertz owns that building and is redeveloping it.

Singh is preparing to ask the council to overturn its decision.

Divisive issue

Aldermen are usually loath to criticize a colleague on local issues, but the turn of events infuriated some concerned about unfair treatment.

"Why wouldn't this individual get (the license)?" Ald. Robert Puente said on the council floor. "I'm not accusing anybody of anything, but I don't understand why. Is it because of the different economic standing of the supporters?"

"It becomes an issue of who are the haves and have-nots," said Ald. Jim Bohl, the Licenses Committee chairman who voted with Singh in November but flipped his vote after Zielinski rallied neighbors to the second hearing. He voted in committee against the Tonic Tavern license.

Puente thinks the full Common Council should not defer to the local aldermen on licensing. Many of his colleagues, though, embrace "aldermanic privilege," saying nobody has better knowledge of neighborhood conditions.

Zielinski defends his actions, and no one has accused him of wrongdoing.

The alderman said he is following the wishes of his district's businesses - Singh notwithstanding.

"I'm trying to get business people with a track record and money to invest in a trendy area," he said. Zielinski says AK mart "looks shoddy."

He said he did not seek notification of neighbors near Tonic Tavern because the new place was favored by businesses, including taverns.

Several property owners and tavern owners at the nightlife crossroads have made campaign contributions to Zielinski, including some who helped oppose AK mart's license, city records show.

And Singh himself has donated to Zielinski and other aldermen, including a $400 gift to Puente's campaign a month after Puente voted for AK mart in committee. Singh and a friend in the Sikh community made donations and buttonholed various aldermen in November at a fund-raiser hosted by Ald. James Witkowiak, the influential former Licenses Committee chairman.

"I was just thinking, 'I can get saved,' " Singh said of the donation just days before the council sent his license request back to committee.

Dertz, whose award-winning Fifth Ward Development is headquartered just behind AK, says Singh is a good operator. But, Dertz says, more carryout beer sales could drive up crime and public drinking.

More of an "undesirable element" could be attracted, said Jonas, of Tonic Tavern.

The area is still working class, and business owners insist they don't mean to be elitist.

"If people want to get (carryout) alcohol they should go to a grocery store," said Kristian Sydow, owner of the S. Kinnickinnic Ave. building that houses Riviera Maya restaurant. If that puts Singh out of business, he said, so be it.

"A bodega closing down because they can't sell beer - I can't shed any tears over that," Sydow said.


Dave Umhoefer thumbnail
About Dave Umhoefer

Dave Umhoefer covers local politics and government as part of the PolitiFact Wisconsin and Watchdog teams. His investigation into pension padding by Milwaukee County employees won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

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