A prominent sight from the back parking lot at Target Field is the historic illuminated sign for Lee’s Liquor Lounge. This proximity to the Twins’ new home has caused many people to insist to Lee’s proprietor Lou Sirian that he’s looking at a financial bonanza come 2010.
“I don’t buy it,’’ Sirian said. “That lot is going to be for the elite – the players and the people with the most expensive seats. They aren’t coming over here.’’
OK, Lou, but you’re about five-minute walk from a stairway for the masses. Surely, some of those folks will stop for a $4 pregame beer, rather than paying $8 inside the ballpark?
“That’s what we thought when Target Center opened,’’ Sirian said. “That was 20 years ago, and I’m still waiting for my first customer because of Target Center."
Bartender Bill Miller and one of the renters of an upstairs room were the other people in Lee’s before noon Friday. They smiled at Lou’s pessimism and Miller said:
“Lou, people are going to be parking down below here. They all will walk past here on the way to the ballpark. This is going to be the next Hubert’s before games.’’
Lou shook his head and said, “Baseball fans are going to have their kids with them. They aren’t going to come in here with kids. If we could sell them a cheeseburger or hot dog, maybe, but not without food in here.’’
The Metrodome opened in 1982 with the promise of a development boom on the eastern edge of downtown. That promise turned into Hubert’s Bar and Restaurant, a saloon that fills up before Vikings games and selected Twins games.
When those games are relocated in 14 months, Lee’s, on Glenwood Avenue and 12th Street, will be the closest watering hole to those folks who find cheaper offsite parking several blocks to the west.
Lee’s Liquor Lounge dates to 1957, when Lee Triemert took a warehouse that dated to 1875 and turned it into a bar. Triemert passed away and Sirian bought it from the family in 1976.
“There was a lot of industry around here when Lee owned it,’’ Sirian said. “There was Kemp’s, Boyer Ford, the bus company, Munsingwear and there was a neighborhood. I had a few years of that, but about ’79, it started to change and the road construction started.
“We were just hanging on in the ‘80s. I worked days at the St. Paul water department and then was here at night."
Carl Eller’s off-sale liquor store shared half the building. “I didn’t like that situation,’’ Sirian said.
He took over the whole building and took down a wall to give himself a large second room for the bar. Once the industry and neighborhood was gone, Sirian’s only chance for survival was to make Lee’s a destination bar.
“We built a stage and started putting music in the second room,’’ Sirian said. “That saved us. For a while."
Lee’s became such a musical institution in the Twin Cities that Dale Watson, a popular performer of old-style country music, wrote and sang “Louie’s Lee’s Liquor Lounge."
Sirian has music seven days a week. Lou said the acts are aimed at “the older folks’’ early in the week.
“There’s no cover and they come in here and drink water all night,’’ he said.
Then, he shrugged and said: “That’s OK. They have a good time.’’
But weekends are packed with a cover-paying, alcohol-drinking younger crowd, right Lou? “We’ll have 50 people in here tonight; 100 if we’re lucky,’’ Sirian said, as Bill the bartender and the upstairs tenant again both smiled at Lou’s lowball estimate.
Sirian has no time for whatever rosy forecasts others have for Lee’s future – not with his current dispute with both the city and the state over the future of the main night-time parking lot across the street.
The ticket office for the Jefferson bus line was removed from the site years ago. Lou spent $16,000 to fill in the hole and make it a serviceable parking lot. He also has paid rent for more than two decades – over $100,000 total.
He claims that council members Van White and Jackie Cherryhomes assured him the lot would be his. Now, he has been given an absurd sum of $175,000 as a price for the near corner of the lot.
“I have a lawyer, and [former council person] Jackie Cherryhomes has been helping me out,’’ Sirian said. “I can’t get anyone to give me an answer on that lot … or a reasonable price. If we lose that parking, I might as well lock the door."
Sirian’s wife Carmen and a daughter Jeanne died within a few weeks of one another in 2007. He opens the bar in late morning and works a few hours, then returns late and makes sure the bar and music room are spotless for the next day.
“We have eight roomers upstairs and some of them help me clean to pay their rent,’’ he said. “But I run the [buffing] machine."
Bill Miller pointed at the music room and said: ‘’Look at the floor. You could eat off that floor. Nobody runs a cleaner establishment than Lou."
Sirian waved off the compliment and said: “I would put food in here, if I knew we were going to have those parking spots. Then, maybe we’d have a few customers before the ballgames. But I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if the city came here with an eviction notice one of these days."
How would that happen? ‘’You never know,’’ Lou said. “They gave me 60 days once before. City Pages and the Star Tribune did stories that saved me that time."
Lee’s Liquor Lounge seems like a burden, Lou. Maybe you could sell to one of those suitors you’ve been hearing from?
“Then, what would I would I do with myself?’’ Sirian said. “Sit around the house and mope.’’
Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org