Johnny’s Tavern plans to reopen on Friday after having closed due to safety concerns related to adjacent homeless camp

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Rick Renfro, an owner of Johnny's Tavern, is pictured on Nov. 8, 2022, center, holding a sign with other employees announcing that the North Lawrence bar and restaurant has closed until the city makes operational changes to a homeless camp that it is operating near the business.

Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence plans to reopen on Friday morning after owners had closed the historic bar for the last three days in protest of how the city is operating a homeless encampment next to the business.

Rick Renfro, an owner of Johnny’s Tavern, said he’s decided to reopen the restaurant and bar after city officials told him they were working to address his concerns. Renfro said he specifically was told that the city is beginning to hire off-duty police officers to have a presence at the site.

“They have assured us that we have been heard, and we feel like they are going to live up to their commitments,” Renfro said.

Renfro said he needed three things from the city before he felt it would be safe to reopen the business, which dates back to 1953. He wanted the campsite to be fenced, he wanted professional staff on the site from at least 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., and he wanted professional coordinators on homeless issues to have the final say on how many people the camp can safely accommodate.

Renfro said he is prepared to close the business again, if conditions at the city-operated campsite don’t improve.

“If I feel like it is not safe again, I will close,” Renfro said. “And that will be a (expletive)-show.”

Renfro said he decided to close the tavern after spending about 12 hours personally monitoring the parking lot on a recent Saturday. He became concerned about the safety of customers and staff.

“When I saw how bad it was, I knew something needed to be done,” Renfro said.

He said there were issues such as public urination, residents of the camp suddenly emerging from the tree line that separates the camp and the parking lot and too many negative interactions between people at Johnny’s and the camp.

“There were actual confrontations,” Renfro said. “Most of them were not physical. Most were verbal confrontations — within spitting distance.”

The city began operating the campground on Oct. 1. The original plans called for 40 people to stay at the site, which is on city-owned land next to the Kansas River levee. City officials recently have acknowledged the camp has grown to more than 80 people.

Renfro said he believes the city has to keep the size of the camp closer to 40 people for it to operate smoothly. He said if the city needs to house more people in a camp setting it should consider opening up a couple of additional campgrounds in other areas of the city.

“I think three camps make perfect sense,” Renfro said. “It gives the whole community a stake in the game, and it is not just all dumped on North Lawrence.”

photo by: Lawrence City Commission screenshot

Rick Renfro, the owner of Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence, addresses a packed Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

As for changes that are occurring at the existing camp, the city was in the process of installing a fence when Renfro announced on Monday that Johnny’s would be closing in protest. When Renfro and Johnny’s supporters showed up en masse at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, the city said it was going to hire more support staff for the campground. Renfro said he’s now been told by a city leader that off-duty police officers will be part of that additional support staff. Renfro said he has noticed more police presence at the location.

“The line police officers have told me it is a priority now, and they (the city) are paying overtime,” Renfro said.

The Journal-World has asked for additional information from the city about how it is using off-duty police officers at the campsite, but details weren’t immediately available.

Renfro said the business and its staff have received an outpouring of support from community members since the temporary closure. He thanked community members for their support, and said it was also important for the community to know that he met and corresponded with city officials on multiple occasions about his concerns before making the decision to close in protest.

“We believe we tried to resolve this without controversy,” Renfro said.

He said he’s looking forward to the reopening on Friday morning.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the community because everyone realizes this is a communitywide problem,” he said. “They have showed us tremendous support in our action, and they can’t wait for us to open back up.”


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