Bar fight brewing: Rick’s Place faces neighbor, zoning battles

Old West Lawrence is no place for Rick’s Place, according to a neighborhood group trying to block the popular downtown watering hole from moving into a strip mall at Ninth and Illinois streets.

“Very simply, it’s a matter of impact to the neighborhood,” said Dale Slusser, president of the Old West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. “We’re worried traffic will increase … we don’t want another bar in our neighborhood.”

Rick’s Place, 623 Vt., is a blue-collar bar with a regular clientele, sort of a Lawrence version of Cheers, the fictional bar from the popular television series. Rick’s has been at its current location 13 years.

Owner Rick Younger said he must move the bar because the building it is in was purchased by developer Doug Compton, and Compton made it clear Younger would have to clear out.

“Basically, the bottom line is that we have an expired lease,” Younger said.

His neighborhood

So Younger found a space in the strip mall at Ninth and Illinois streets, just a few blocks from his home in Old West Lawrence. But some of his neighbors don’t want Rick’s Place there. And they have some ammunition to perhaps block the move.

The space Younger is ready to move into, formerly occupied by Dodson’s Liquor, 846 Ill., is in the same strip mall as St. Sophia’s Orthodox Church.

A variance from the Lawrence City Commission will be required for Younger to operate his business there, within 400 feet of the parish. City ordinance doesn’t allow bars that close to churches.

Rick Younger, owner of Rick's Place, 623 Vt., has hit a snag in moving his bar to the former location of Dodson's Liquor, 846 Ill. At Tuesday's City Commission meeting, Old West Lawrence neighborhood residents will ask the city to deny a variance Younger needs to locate his bar in the strip mall, which also is home to a church.

“We’d prefer it not go there,” said St. Sophia parish president Micheal Wilson. “But who are we to decide what God has in mind?”

Wilson said early ideas for the vacated liquor store included a sandwich shop, which the church would have preferred. But after Younger leased the space, the parish decided it wouldn’t fight the move.

“We don’t plan to be here forever,” Wilson said. “We hope to have our own church someday.”

Sticky situation

But some of Younger’s neighbors in Old West Lawrence are not taking the same live-and-let-live approach. At a meeting of the neighborhood association, officers and block workers voted unanimously to oppose the variance request before the City Commission.

Slusser said the bar would bring more drunken drivers and noise to the area, putting the neighborhood in danger. He said his group would have opposed any bar, any way, but the city made it easy.

“If it weren’t for the church, I don’t know what kind of recourse we would have had,” Slusser said. “But this is the code we have, and we’re going to use it.”

For city commissioners who will vote on the issue, it’s a sticky situation. The commission has repeatedly voiced its support for locally owned businesses such as Rick’s. It’s also been a loud supporter of neighborhoods. This time, it must choose.

“This is a tough one,” said Lawrence City Commissioner Boog Highberger.

“I haven’t come to any conclusion yet, myself,” Mayor David Dunfield said. “I’m going to want to hear both sides.”

‘Don’t want change’

For Highberger, the decision is more simple. Though he said he admired the business, he won’t support a move to the proposed location.

“Given the problems we’ve seen with neighborhood bars in other parts of the city, I’d be inclined to not grant the waiver,” he said.

Commissioner David Schauner said he was reserving judgment until he heard the arguments Tuesday at the commission’s meeting, which begins at 6:35 p.m. in City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets. But he said it would probably be a tough sell for Younger.

“I would hope we would do everything we can to protect our neighborhoods and their social and economic vitality,” Schauner said.

Commissioners Mike Rundle and Sue Hack could not be reached for comment.

For Younger, the entire process has been frustrating.

“I think some people just don’t want change … they think all change is bad,” he said. “Not wrong, but bad. They just want things to stay the same. They don’t want to grow.”