Charles Carter arrives still dressed in his khaki work uniform. He's a master landscape technician for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and his enormous rough worker's hands tell the tale of his trade.
He's also the proud owner of the Lex, a private club on the corner of Concordia Avenue and Chatsworth Street in St. Paul's historically black Rondo neighborhood. He's proud, even though he's temporarily shuttered the club, its confines dark and chilly in the early spring air.
In 2009, Carter and his business partner Josh Howard were granted a private club charter by the state of Minnesota. In 2012, they purchased 976 Concordia Ave., formerly the site of Attucks-Brooks American Legion Post 606, the only African American legion in St. Paul. The once-private American Legion had fallen into disrepair after it was opened to the public, and become a magnet for crime. By the time it closed in 2012, it was the site of two shootings outside of the doors, one of them fatal.
Carter and Howard say they wanted to "do something different, and give the building back to Rondo."
They worked to repair the property, investing in the club's facade, the interior, and a fenced-in courtyard where the Legion's parking lot used to stand (formerly a trouble spot for loitering and blight for the neighborhood).
Anyone over the age of 35 could become a member of the Lex after being approved by the board of directors, which included passing a criminal background check. He says at its peak, the Lex hosted over 400 members.
In its four years of existence, the club has hosted bachelor and bachelorette parties, a wedding, Super Bowl parties, and most recently, a cremation ceremony. For these sorts of events, Carter says he was able to obtain one-day permits to serve alcohol for special events. He says they never sold any alcohol on the premises, in part because they were denied a traditional liquor license.
Despite their insistence that they never sold alcohol on site, Carter says that they were continually harassed by the police, at the behest of the Department of Safety. Most notably, 14 officers raided the Lex on Martin Luther King Day, when about 20 members were gathered to read up on black history. "They came in here and looked around and left. They didn't even know what they were looking for. They said, 'Hey, we're sorry,' and left."
Carter says he can think of at least another half dozen instances when police showed up for seemingly no reason. He says the unnecessary police presence began to make members uncomfortable, and they stopped coming as often. "People would just leave."
Howard says the City Attorney's Office rejected their application for an on-sale liquor license because the Lex had "other avenues available to it to have liquor at its location." The Lex Club accepted the City Council’s decision and pursued what was recommended — a Consumption Display Permit.
According to Minnesota statute, the Consumption Display Permit would allow the consumption of intoxicating liquor on the premises, but not the sale of it. Members could bring and keep a personal supply of liquor inside of lockers on the club's premises.
But when Carter and Howard applied for the Consumption Display Permit, the St. Paul City Council denied them that license as well. Robert Humphrey, public information officer for the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspection says that the permits "are not in general a good idea for the city of St. Paul," and the city proposed to amend the ordinance currently on the books. They say the permits are too difficult to regulate.
Now Carter says it's a moot point to try to continue to operate the club. "If members can't come by here after work and have a beer, they're not going to want to come." He added he can't go and apply for one-day permits every time he wants to host a member so they can come and have a drink.
"I believe it's discrimination because we are a minority club. Because I'm a minority leader in a minority club in a minority neighborhood. I believe in my heart they'd rather change the ordinance than give a permit to a minority club. That's a state statute. If you can't enforce it, why have it on the books?"
Consumption Display Permits (known as "bottle club" licenses) are not unheard of, but the precedent is limited. The city says they haven't seen a request for one in over 30 years.
For now, Carter and Howard have decided to cease running the Lex as a private club, and attempt to open it as a restaurant instead, serving American food and showcasing historic photos and memorabilia of the Rondo neighborhood.
But he's prepared to jump through more hoops.
"If the city says we can't have a restaurant here, then we have problems."
He hopes to have the restaurant open by the end of the year.
976 Concordia Ave., St. Paul