Staying alive

Arnellia's gets a reprieve from the St. Paul City Council

On Wednesday night roughly 120 people packed the St. Paul City Council chambers for a hearing on the future of Arnellia's, the black owned and operated University Avenue club known for its excellent chicken wings and live music. Most of the attendees wore flourescent tags with the bar's name emblazoned on it and most of them were African American.

The club, owned for 15 years by Arnellia Allen, was facing a dire situation. The city's office of Licenses, Inspections, and Environmental Protection had recommended that Arnellia's be fined $2,000 and shuttered for sixty days. The bar's offense: in February, 2004 an underage patron was allowed entry into the bar and subsequently killed someone on its premises.

The standard penalty for serving underage patrons is a $1,000 fine, but this was not the first time that Arnellia's has run afoul of licensing strictures. In 1995 the bar was shut down for one day for selling alcohol to a minor. The next year Arnellia's was involuntarily closed for six days owing to unruly patrons. And in 1999, the club was shuttered for 45 days after it failed to produce surveilance videotapes related to two seperate criminal investigations.

The hearing didn't get off to a very good start for Arnellia's and its supporters. After an assistant city attorney had detailed the bar's history of "very serious violations," the only question came from Fifth Ward city council member Lee Helgen. "That was quite the history that you read here that had occured at this establishment," he noted. "Why isn't it that we didn't pursue revocation sooner in the process?"

But the tenor of the meeting changed dramatically once the opposition was given the microphone. Arnellia's attorney, a white guy named Bill Tilton, got the ball rolling, describing the bar as the "Club Apollo of the Twin Cities." "It's my favorite bar," he continued. "It is the best bar for random live music in Minnesota. And I think that people have the wrong impression of what this club is and what it has been. ... This is a community center of a sort that most people don't understand. Some people go to the Guthrie. But if you like Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes you're gonna go to Arnellia's."

He was followed to the podium by a parade of notables from St. Paul's black community. "[Arnellia's] is a community gathering place," former city council president Bill Wilson noted. "The music, the camaraderie, the spirit of the community is reflected there, and it's so much needed. I think it's so unfortunate to hold this establishement responsible for some of the ills of society. That's essentially what I'm seeing here."

Then came Earl Wilson, senior pastor at Progressive Baptist Church on St. Paul's East Side. "Arnellia is a very faithful member of our congregation," he began. "Her restaurant and club is the only place that I know in the city where myself and my parishioners can go and dine and listen to live jazz and live blues and feel safe. If you impose the maximum penalty, which is recommended, it would be tantamount to putting her out of business."

Various others followed: businessman Courtney Henry, retired police officer Melvin Carter, West Side drummer Junior Trejo, and club owner Arnellia Allen herself. Each made the case that any problems Arnellia's might have had were long in the past, and that the club had done everything within its power to be an upstanding business. Their speeches were frequently interrupted by applause and even standing ovations. "To take Arnellia's from us would leave a gaping hole in our community," Carter noted. "We have so many special events there--after funerals, birthday parties, we have political events where votes are decided oftentimes. It's a wonderful place, and we feel safe there."

By the time the defense rested, it seemed inconceivable that the city council would vote to, in essence, shut the place down. Fourth Ward council member Jay Benanav, whose district includes Arnellia's, took up the club's cause. "What we've seen in the last six, seven years is a venue that has done everthing it possibly can to make it a safe place for the neighborhood," he noted. "In the three years that Arnellia's has been in my ward, I've not gotten a single complaint from the neighborhood."

Benanav proposed that the fine be reduced to $1500 and that the shuttering of the business be trimmed to 10 days. However, $500 of the fine and all of the closing would be stayed contingent that Arnellia's operates for 60 days without similar problems. In essense, the club would have to pay a $1000 fine.

Despite some handwringing from council members Helgen and Kathy Lantry about setting a poor precedent for dealing with other bars, Benanav's proposals was adopted by a 4-2 vote.

Afterwards Allen declared herself satisfied with the outcome. "I didn't know how it was going to do down, but I am happy the way it came out," she said. Asked why the city was targeting her club, Allen paused and thought for a few seconds. "You know what I'm going to say," she noted. "Because I'm a black woman."

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