Drugs, brawls and murder land Champions bar in trouble with city

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2014 - 7:37 AM

City regulators recommend not renewing Champions’ license.

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Rick Nelson, owner of Champions, outside his Lake Street bar in 2012.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Drugs, brawls and murder have landed a popular Lake Street bar in trouble.

Champions Sports Bar & Grill is in jeopardy after Minneapolis regulators and an administrative law judge recommended that the City Council vote against renewing its liquor license following eight years of pressure to end drug deals and violence.

The city’s actions against Champions, which already has a federal case pending against Minneapolis officials, intensified last August after a midnight shooting inside the bar left one customer dead.

Findings documented this month by the judge have all the flourishes of a crime thriller, with references to a customer who killed someone with a gun hidden in his prosthetic leg to elude a metal detector and the chief security officer soliciting sex in his truck for $50 from an undercover cop.

The report about the bar at the corner of West Lake Street and Blaisdell Avenue S., noted that notorious drug dealers were permitted inside despite being on a list of banned customers, and patrons were seen smoking marijuana within 25 feet of security. One of the pot smokers allegedly told a police sergeant that security was “cool about it.”

Ed Matthews, a lawyer for the bar, said he looked forward to explaining Champions’ story at a hearing Tuesday.

“It’s clear to us that the city has targeted Champions and intended to set Champions up for failure,” he said.

Champions’ most recent license expired last June, but the city allowed the bar to stay open pending the outcome of the administrative case.

Pulling license is rare

The Community Development and Regulatory Services Committee will conduct a license hearing Tuesday to hear arguments on the findings of Administrative Law Judge Jeanne Cochran, who suggested the city could also consider allowing Champions to continue operating but with strict conditions, including that it hire a professional security firm. Additionally, the judge recommended the city move a bus stop outside the bar, which owner Rick Nelson has long blamed for attracting much of the crime.

Pulling a bar’s liquor license is rare at City Hall, where regulators usually try to work out agreements with troubled businesses in which they press for additional security or other measures. Cases go before an administrative law judge if the city cannot reach an agreement with a business for which it is recommending “adverse action” and the license holder wants to contest certain facts.

In recent years, the owners of Karma, Envy Nightclub and Bootleggers — all downtown — have closed their doors after pressure from Minneapolis over fights and police calls.

Nelson has argued that the city is punishing Champions for activity that happens off the premises, a claim that was successful for Northeast bar Gabby’s Saloon and Eatery. The venue won $201,000 from the city after an appeals court found in 2009 that Minneapolis went too far in penalizing the bar for what happened off the premises. The bar, which has since closed, claimed in a federal lawsuit that the city was trying to drive away black customers who attended its hip-hop nights when it sought to limit the number of patrons and drink specials there in response to neighbors’ complaints about yelling, littering and public urination.

Fines, suspensions

Champions’ troubles with the city go back to 2006, when the bar paid a $10,000 fine and agreed to a one-day suspension after undercover cops and confidential informants bought drugs on the property. Champions also agreed to boost its security as part of an agreement with city regulators.

But the drug deals and nuisance calls continued: Champions paid a $5,000 fine and underwent a 14-day suspension the following year.

Nelson tripled security staff and had them use a metal detection wand on customers at the door. He improved the lighting, installed a fence and hired off-duty police officers for the busiest nights. Still, after fielding continued calls about drug-dealing at Champions, Fifth Precinct Inspector Matthew Clark — now assistant police chief — set up a sting operation that led to the arrest of 14 people involved in drug deals at or near the bar that generated much media attention in March 2012.

Clark banned the bar from continuing to employ off-duty officers, noting that they had not been effective in stopping drug dealing, though Nelson said his off-duty cops did not interfere with troublesome customers because they did not want to step on the undercover officers’ investigation.

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  • Champions owner Rick Nelson blames a bus stop for attracting much of the trouble.

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    What: The Community Development and Regulatory Services Committee license hearing

    When: Tuesday, 1:30 p.m.

    Where: Council Chambers, Room 317

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