After more than four hours of testimony, the Menomonie City Council unanimously stood firm on its decision not to renew the alcohol licenses that would allow a downtown bar to stay in business because of multiple violations of state statute.
Acting on a tip about underage activity from confidential informants, Menomonie police — aided by University of Wisconsin Stout police and Dunn County sheriff’s deputies — issued an unprecedented number of tickets, including 45 underage drinking citations, at the Rehab Bar, 631 Broadway, on April 12.
After the council voted not to renew Rehab’s Class B beer and liquor licenses on May 21, David Zempel, the sole agent for Loren Corp. which owns the bar, requested a special hearing to plead his case.
Zempel was among the last of nine witnesses called. In addition to the Rehab, which he purchased about six years ago, he owns a wedding venue in New Auburn and a restaurant in Eau Claire. Noting that he has worked in hospitality for nearly 13 years, he told the council, “I’ve never received a warning or a citation at any establishment I’ve worked at or managed.”
Calling himself a strong believer in personal responsibility, Zempel described his reaction when he learned about what took place on April 12: “I feel like I failed at my job. ... I always think there’s more we can do.”
Zempel said he’s installing more cameras to existing ones that monitor the activity at the door as well as purchasing a state-of-the-art ID scanner to help bouncers better identify fake identification cards. He also added a second person to check IDs and hired a specialist to enhance his staff’s training.
Menomonie Police Officer Tyler Hamann showed the council a simple way to check for a fake Wisconsin and recounted the details of what took place on April 12.
A total of 116 alcohol-related citations were issued that night, including 45 tickets for underage consumption and 49 for on premise/procure — in which an underage person either attempted to enter the bar or to purchase alcohol once inside — as well as citations for 23 ID card violations and one criminal arrest of obstructing.
Hamann said that inside Rehab, patrons were packed shoulder to shoulder for “Free Drink Thursday” available to those wearing $30 wristbands purchased at the beginning of the semester. The agencies involved devised a plan to enter Rehab to check on the tip about an estimated 20 to 30 underage people on the premises. Those who were identified were brought outside the bar.
“We quickly found out that every single time we went in there, we were finding a lot more than 20 to 30 subjects,” Hamann said. “We brought as many as we could out, and other officers were having a difficult time processing all of the other subjects who were outside.”
At that point, the investigation came to a close.
Three 19-year-old students who were at Rehab on April 12 described how they entered the bar undetected by the bouncer. Their stories were called into question by Rehab manager Brittany Andrews who was on duty that night.
Saying she was very confident that no one was able to sneak in, she said she reviewed hours of video footage to make sure that the bouncer checked the ID of each person who entered.
Andrews said Zempel took the matter seriously and ordered that the bouncer on duty be fired: “It was a rough one for all of us. We didn’t want this to happen.”
Council member Mary Solberg asked Andrews that in the face of how well she trained Rehab staff if she could explain how so many underage people could get into the bar. Andrews said that so many of the fake IDs presented are extremely convincing and especially difficult to discern as false when they are from states other than Wisconsin or Minnesota.
When asked by his attorney Timothy O’Brien of Bakke Norman law firm what would happen if the licenses were not renewed after the June 30 deadline, Zempel said, “It’s going to be bad. ... My employees work very hard for me. ... That’s the only thing I’ve thought about.”
The council’s motion to deny the renewal of Rehab’s license goes into effect on July. City Attorney Benjamin Ludeman said Zempel can appeal the decision to Dunn County Circuit Court.
On Tuesday, Zempel said he’s unsure of where to go from here, but his immediate plan is to file an appeal. He said he felt the council turned a “blind eye” to what he called a preponderance of the evidence.
“We showed that a lot of the students that came in ... that said they didn’t have a fake ID actually had one,” Zempel said. “I respect the council’s decision. ... I understand how serious of an issue this is. I’m a Menomonie resident, I love it here, and I don’t want to leave this community.”
After the hearing, Chief Eric Atkinson said, “On behalf of the Menomonie Police Department I would like to thank the Menomonie City Council for their time and decision to not renew the Class B retail license for the Rehab.”
Noting that the number of underage violations was egregious, Solberg said, “It’s always tough. You don’t want to pull someone’s livelihood out from underneath them, so this was a very decision. ... I don’t know that we had any other choice.”
“Menomonie is an amazing place to live — and we want to keep it that way,” Mayor Randy Knaack said.