Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- In the end, after an overwhelming show of support from people making public comments, the Park Forest Village Board dealt a blow to business. The board voted down the Illinois Street liquor license application by a rare split vote of 4-3.
Park Forest has often been criticized for not being “business friendly.” Others have said “against business.”
Monday’s split decision was a decidedly anti-business decision, another blow to business in Park Forest.
The Village Board did approve two other liquor licenses: one for Ken’s Liquor, Inc., coming to 2560 Western Avenue, and PF Foods, Inc., coming to 120 S. Orchard Drive. Ken’s Liquor received a Class B liquor store license. PF Foods received a Class F grocery store and Class L video gaming liquor license. Another license, a Class A tavern liquor license, previously granted to old Pot Entertainment (DBA Millys) at 200 Main Street, was rescinded. In the latter case, “This license was approved by the Board of Trustees in March 2017,” the memorandum from staff said, “but never issued pending the business owner signing a lease with the DownTown Management Office. To date, the lease has not been signed, and the business owner has not been
responsive to Village requests for him to do so. Therefore, Staff recommends that this liquor license be revoked.”
But it was the denial of the Class E convenience store liquor license for Golden Quick Mart at 313 Illinois Street that was particularly disappointing. Public opinion strongly favored the license. As of Monday afternoon, Village Manager Tom Mick told eNews Park Forest that, after receiving a second petition, the Village received 350 signatures on petitions. The second petition had 125 signatures, according to Mr. Mick. Of those, all but 4 were in opposition to the license. With the second petition, that left 150 signatures opposed, 200 in favor.
At Monday’s board meeting, the line for public comments was long, and the vast majority of those who spoke were in favor of the license. These were customers of Mr. Ash Seif. One was an employee, Park Forest resident Dorelle Curtis. He referred to Mr. Ash (as those who made comments called him) as a father figure. Mr. Curtis was the only person Mayor John Ostenburg interrupted as he was beginning to speak. Mr. Ostenburg told Mr. Curtis and those who followed him to keep his comments short if they were saying things similar to those who went before them. After Mr. Ostenburg gave this warning, Mr. Curtis had his full say, and others in the board room, who were not in line to speak, stood and got in line to offer their support for Mr. Seif’s license.
The first resident who spoke said that the store has been a “nightmare” for her and her family, that there was a lot of foot traffic, and some people drove behind the building on the grass. A later speaker, who spoke in favor of the license, recalled seeing the first speaker drive behind the building herself many times.
There was also a social worker who spoke against the license, speaking about bringing “substances” into a neighborhood.
Another resident asked, “Where is the business owner? Is he even here?”
Mr. Seif was in line behind him.
Additionally, there was there was the parent who receive a phone call from Mr. Seif when a child tried to buy a lighter. There was testimony that Mr. Seif refuses to sell cigarettes to adults who, in his estimation, are buying for minors. There was the resident who trusted a child to go to Mr. Seif’s store
Of the few who spoke in opposition to the license Monday, several erroneously referred to the business as a liquor store. This was clearly not the case, nor was it the intention of Mr. Seif to transform his store into a liquor store, something that would not be permitted under local ordinance if he tried.
However, while speakers at the past two board meetings largely opposed the license–and many of the same speakers spoke at both meetings–on Monday, the majority of the comments were in favor of Mr. Seif and his liquor license application.
It appears, however, that Mr. Seif was left to suffer because of the sins of those in the past. Which has nothing to do with Mr. Seif or his business.
The most odd thing that happened Monday night was the vote. After the public comments, every board member spoke. Trustee Mae Brandon correctly stated that there was no legal impediment to granting the type of license sought by Mr. Seif. “Our ordinance does not state that,” she said. “The schools that are there are not the schools that the state considers, that would apply to the distance between stores that sell alcohol.” The comment on the schools was in reference to concerns of some residents regarding Illinois Montessori Children’s House, a day care center in the same plaza.
Trustee Brandon is correct.
Still, Trustees Tiffani Graham and Jonathan Vanderbilt cited concerns about the children in their comments as to why they would vote in opposition to the license application.
Trustee Georgia O’Neill, a 47 year resident of Park Forest, spoke, and later voted, in favor of the license. In her comments, Ms. O’Neill referenced her deceased husband, Marty. “I remember the mayor making a comment when we were talking about this issue, and he said he’s no friend of alcohol, because he’s had issues that led him to that decision. When my husband died, he had celebrated 30 years with A.A. So, I’m not a fan of excessive drinking. One thing that I learned from my late husband–he served as moderator with the church and with other communities–and he always said, ‘Just think about the fair decision.’ And I think that’s what guided me in this.”
Trustee O’Neill voted in favor of the license.
Trustee Robert McCray went on at length, saying that the problem, as he sees it, lies with human behavior. “Mr. Ash has nothing to do with human behavior. He has no control over anyone except himself, and perhaps those under his jurisdictional law, or fatherhood, or relationships. So, we haven’t seen anything difficult come from his current presence at that location. The selling of beer an wine is, in itself, not so much of a problem, until it gets into the physical systems of the people who purchase it. We can’t legislate or control human behavior that much, no matter how many documentations or sayings there are, how many prisons are built.” McCray then told a joke about someone who had been in prison and then vowed to return to the prison some day and break the windows. “It’s a very difficult decision because you’re trying to be forward-looking, and you’re also trying to look at the past.”
It appeared that, during his remarks, Mr. McCray was in favor of the ordinance granting the liquor license. After remarks from Mayor Ostenburg, however, Mr. McCray flip-flopped from any leanings he might have had in favor of the ordinance, and voted against.
The comments from Mayor John Ostenburg were most perplexing, especially when he referred to “two decisions”: “We made two decisions several years ago about liquor licenses.”
Mr. Ostenburg began by saying that he had no doubt of Mr. Seif’s integrity or his intent. He said that when he held the liquor hearing for the license, Mr. Seif’s background showed no red flags. “Under oath, he did testify he would sell only beer and wine. Under oath, he indicated that he needed that additional income in order to make repairs to the building.”
Then, Mr. Ostenburg, “Some of the trustees were not around at the time and do not feel bound the way I do. The fact of the matter is, when the last store that had a liquor license left, we made a pledge to the community that we would not have a liquor license at that location in the future. I can’t speak for the people who weren’t part of the board at that time. But I know that I was at Illinois School, where some of you were in the audience, some others might not have been, and I said, as long as I’m the mayor, I will not support a liquor license in this neighborhood.”
This confuses me even as I write. Who was the “we” who “made a pledge to the community?” I was on the board at the time “when the last store that had a liquor license left.” Mr. Ostenburg may or may not have made a statement to members of the community at Illinois School. I honestly don’t recall. But there never, never, was any type of a resolution that came before the board that stated this intent. Unless Mr. Ostenburg was employing the royal “we,” that never happened. And, later, Mr. Ostenburg used the word “decision
So, why all the fuss to begin with? If, indeed, the mayor himself made this promise to come in the community, why the charade of holding hearings, and bringing something before the Village Board that he would not support? In my experience, Mr. Ostenburg often pulled items from agendas, or items were never put on agendas, if it appeared there was less than unanimous support. or if something about an ordinance troubled him some of the trustees in the first place.
And, why, why, did he not mention this promise at all during the last two meetings where there was public comment? Why wait until the 11th hour?
Because the only people that mattered at that point were the six trustees seated with him. And the one vote he appeared to have swayed Monday night was that of Trustee Robert McCray.
This charade appeared extremely disingenuous, especially that, the fact of the matter is, the Village Board just a few years ago completely overhauled Chapter 6 of the Code of Village Ordinances with respect to categories of licenses available for consideration. At that time, Mr. Ostenburg had every opportunity to tighten up the ordinances regarding sale of alcohol in a residential neighborhood or anywhere else in Park Forest. He did not.
Mr. Seif sought a Class E liquor license:
Class E license. A class E license shall authorize the retail sales of alcoholic liquors in the original package by a convenience store for consumption off the premises. No more than 15 percent of the total square feet of the premises shall be allocated to the display and sale of alcoholic liquors.
A Class D license has similar language, but applies only to drugstores. Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy do have liquor licenses. Walgreens sought theirs last, and it was granted. Walgreens is in a residential neighborhood, on a street that is well-traversed by students going to and from school or the Park Forest Library, or, in the summer, the Park Forest Aqua Center. Indeed, Walgreens occupies the same intersection as the Park Forest Library.
It was the last part of Mr. Ostenburg’s remarks that were particularly troubling, “I certainly don’t want to see the business fail. If, in fact, this is turned down, I hope all of you who opposed the liquor license will now redouble your efforts to shop at the store to make up for the difference for that 15% of shelf space that would have gone to alcohol.”
And then this.
“Fifteen percent is not a whole lot. That means there’s 85%–there was some mention before about only penny candy. Well, if Mr. Seif is just selling penny candy, and then 15%–if he’s selling 85% candy and then 15% liquor, that’s a little bit of an invalid, not a measure for success. So, I would hope that the 85% that would be there, even in the event that he got the license, would be items that the rest of you would want to purchase, and go to the store, and keep him in business.”
And there is Mr. Ostenburg’s “out.” If the business fails, he can then claim that the failure of that business had nothing to do with the liquor license. He will be able to blame the business owner not having items people wanted to purchase.
“He does sound like he’s a good business man,” Mr. Ostenburg continued, “but the bottom line for me is, we made two decisions several years ago about liquor licenses. One of them was that we would not allow another liquor store in DownTown Park Forest.”
Again, there was no resolution to that effect. The “decision” he might be referring to is some discussion at a budget hearing where Mr. Ostenburg stated his objections to staff considering a liquor store in the DownTown given past experiences. But “decision” is a very specific word. In the past, Mr. Ostenburg would caution trustee liaisons to boards and commissions that boards and commissions do not make “decisions.” They make “recommendations.” Only the Village Board makes “decisions,” by a vote, with proper public notice, at public meetings.
“The other pledge we made was that we would not put another liquor store in that neighborhood, at that location,” Mr. Ostenburg said.
He then clarified that Mr. Seif’s store is not a liquor store. If that was Mr. Seif’s intent, he would have sought a Class B liquor license, “A class B license shall authorize the retail sales of alcoholic liquors for consumption off the premises by a liquor store. A liquor store shall only be located in the C-2 commercial zoning district.” And, of course, a Class B liquor license would not apply to that store, in that neighborhood, as the store is in an area zoned C-1, neighborhood commercial.
So, again, if Mr. Ostenburg is opposed to this type of measure in principle, why did it ever advance that far? Why did Mr. Ostenburg not object just a few years ago when the Village added the Class E license for convenience stores? He said, “We made two decisions several years ago about liquor licenses.”
But there was no such decision regarding a liquor license at that store. There was no such resolution by the Village Board. Pledge? On that, Mr. Ostenburg would have to speak for himself.
From the long line of people who spoke on his behalf, Mr. Ash Seif seems like precisely the type of business owner ideal for a neighborhood convenience store, ideal for Park Forest, ideal for that location, the Golden Quick Mart.
This decision to refuse the license was not business-friendly, a blow to business in Park Forest, pure and simple.
The writer is a former Village Trustee in Park Forest.