State alcohol officials are investigating a large nightclub on the edge of the Kansas University campus on suspicion that it broke the law by giving away drinks, and city leaders are expressing concern that the bar is promoting irresponsible drinking.
The Cave, the multilevel nightclub in the recesses of The Oread, faces a $2,000 fine and two-day suspension of its liquor license after the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control division cited it for illegally advertising free liquor.
The citations came after ABC officers were alerted to unusual messages posted on The Cave’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, including a promotion that said "ladies drink free" until 10:30 p.m. on Fridays.
But City Hall officials and local alcohol abuse counselors are equally concerned about other messages posted on The Cave’s Twitter account. Those include a photo of a man who appears to have passed out in a bar booth and to have wet his pants. The photo was sent multiple times on The Cave’s Twitter account and was accompanied by language promoting the bar’s frequent $1 drink nights.
“It is a completely irresponsible business practice,” said Jen Jordan, director of prevention services at the Lawrence-based drug and alcohol counseling service DCCCA.
The nightclub’s social media messages also have drawn attention at City Hall. The Cave, 1200 Oread Ave., is part of a project that received more than $500,000 in public tax incentives in 2013 and is scheduled to receive tax breaks for another 15 years or more.
“I think it would be in the best interest for both the management of The Cave and the city to have a conference and try to have them understand what we expect them to do and how we expect them to conduct their business,” said City Commissioner Bob Schumm, who also is in the alcohol industry as the owner of a bar and restaurant in downtown Lawrence.
A representative of The Cave said she recently had seen to the removal of the photo from The Cave’s social media accounts, but shared few other details.
“I can’t control everything that everybody does,” said Nancy Longhurst, the general manager for The Oread and the person listed as a representative of The Cave on its liquor license. “I can tell you that now that I have seen the picture, I have handled it myself personally, internally, and that becomes a personnel issue.”
Jordan said the photo on social media, which was posted on both Jan. 24 and Jan. 25, was particularly troubling because of the message it sent about alcohol abuse.
“If someone is passed out, they should be calling 911 and getting them medical help,” Jordan said. “Promoting excess to a dangerous level is what is disturbing. They are making this to be humorous.”
Several other tweets or retweets by The Cave also have drawn attention. They include:
• A Feb. 8. retweet that “alcoholism isn’t a real thing until after college.”
• A Feb. 28 retweet about the need for “blackout buckets” at the nightclub.
• A February tweet that “ladies drink free until 10:30.” A Facebook posting by The Cave also indicated that women drink free every Friday night at The Cave.
• On multiple occasions tweets announced winners of free punch cards that could be redeemed for alcoholic drinks.
Dean Reynoldson, director of the state’s ABC division, said he couldn’t comment on what role the tweets may have played in the state’s case against The Cave because the investigation is ongoing. But he said the state has laws against advertising free alcohol.
Some of The Cave’s tweets did raise questions of general taste as well, leaders said. A Feb. 15 tweet promoted the club's dollar drink night by simply saying: “Dolla (Expletive) Night.”
“This doesn’t look appropriate,” Schumm said of the string of tweets. “It doesn’t look appropriate if you are trying to establish good behavior.”
Jordan, who works with a variety of bars in her job, said The Cave’s tactics weren’t typical of how other bars in the community promote themselves.
The Cave’s response
Longhurst said she had not yet reviewed all The Cave’s social media accounts and was not familiar with any of the postings mentioned above, other than the photo of the man with the wet pants. But she said she would look into the other postings in future days and address the issue with staff members as needed.
“These are all young people who work for me in the hotel, and also, I assume, downstairs (in The Cave),” Longhurst said. “People make mistakes, and we all have to learn as we grow up.”
Although listed on the club’s state liquor license, Longhurst isn’t the day-to-day general manager of The Cave. It was unclear who serves as the manager of the club.
Longhurst ended the interview with the Journal-World before the reporter had a chance to ask all of his questions about the club's operation.
Attempts to reach Thomas Fritzel, the prominent Lawrence developer involved in the Rock Chalk Park project and others, were not successful. Fritzel is part of the ownership group for The Oread project.
The Cave is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing on the alleged violations of state liquor law on Monday. City commissioners said they want to be updated on how the ABC’s enforcement action against The Cave proceeds.
But city officials also said they want to meet with leaders of The Cave to discuss issues that go beyond liquor law matters. Lawrence police have had to respond to The Cave for reports of fights on multiple occasions. Sgt. Trent McKinley, a spokesman for the department, said late last week that data hadn't yet been compiled to show how the number of calls to The Cave compares with calls to other bars in town.
"It is an active place," McKinley said of The Cave.
McKinley cited incidents at The Cave that have required a large police response. Eight police units were sent to the site in the early-morning hours of Feb. 2 after an officer on patrol reported that a fight was brewing among a large crowd leaving the bar. Ultimately police officers used pepper spray to subdue some members of the crowd who advanced on a police officer who was handcuffing a suspect, McKinley said.
Before officers could leave the scene, they worked another incident that involved a male patron allegedly punching a female patron of the bar in the mouth while in a club VIP room, McKinley said.
Some city commissioners said they also want to have a discussion about the tweets the club has used to promote itself. After seeing several of the tweets, Schumm said he thought there should be a discussion about standards of “good judgment and good taste.”
Schumm said the conversation would be appropriate because city commissioners in 2008 approved a pair of special taxing districts for the multistory Oread building, which includes the hotel, condos and The Cave. The two taxing districts, which essentially rebate property and sales taxes back to the development group, generated $560,437 for the development group in 2013. The project is scheduled to receive tax incentives until about 2030.
Commissioner Mike Amyx was part of the commission that approved the tax incentives for The Oread. Amyx said he wants city staff members to review the agreements the city has with the Oread developers to determine what, if anything, the agreements say about the expected conduct of the business.
Schumm, who was not on the commission at the time of The Oread deal, said he wants staff members to look at what language could be added to future agreements to ensure businesses receiving incentives operate at an agreed upon “level of behavior.”
“It is quite obvious that we don’t want to give an incentive for any kind of program that we’re not going to be proud of,” Schumm said.
Schumm and Amyx both noted that The Cave is only a small portion of The Oread project. The hotel portion of the project frequently is cited as one of the top hotels in the city and has been used to attract conferences and events to the area.
But Schumm said activity around The Cave will cause some taxpayers to question whether the city is getting what it signed up for when it approved the incentives.
“The photos and tweets may not tell the full story, but, if they do, then the public is not getting what it signed up for,” Schumm said.
Longhurst said such concerns are inaccurate.
“Thomas Fritzel and the whole partnership group has done everything for this community,” Longhurst said. “I am so proud to say that I manage The Oread hotel. We have provided a gift to this community. We have provided 290 jobs to this community. We have a beautiful facility. And you know what? I can’t be more proud of what we have done.”