ST. LOUIS — By the time city liquor control officers reached Reign Restaurant’s front door one Saturday in May, it was 1:50 a.m., way past closing time. They could see people still drinking inside, but when the officers tried to enter, a “very large” security officer blocked their path.
As the officers stood outside on Washington Avenue, for 22 minutes, patrons slipped out the back door, drinks still in their hands.
Now, after months of trouble and mountains of complaints, City Hall is putting Reign on trial. Hearings, which begin Friday, will decide the fate of the establishment.
For most of the spring and summer, officials have fielded complaints from Washington Avenue denizens who blame Reign for fights in their streets, broken bottles on the sidewalks and gunshots waking them up at night. But after two shootings in four days last month, city officials are cracking down. The 10 a.m. hearing could end with the revocation of Reign’s liquor license — a fatal blow for almost any nightspot.
For Reign owner Dana Kelly, Friday’s hearing is a sham, the latest attempt to smear her establishment’s name and blame it for problems that have dogged downtown long before she opened. For new Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, it’s an opportunity to show her administration is acting at a time when the city core is also struggling with homelessness, office vacancies and violence. And for neighboring residents and business owners, it’s a chance to rid themselves of a place they call a menace.
“It’s been a problem for everyone who lives down there,” said Joe Edwards, who owns Flamingo Bowl, across the street. “How long do people let the reputation of downtown St. Louis go down the tubes because of one particular place?”
The list of charges against Reign compiled by city liquor control officials goes back to last summer.
Reign first got into trouble with the city in early August, just weeks after it opened, accused of flouting pandemic rules on masking and social distancing. The city ordered the bar to shut down again in October that year.
In December four people were shot outside Reign, all of whom liquor control officials say were patrons. Liquor control chief Myles McConnell, who signed the notice, alleges Reign failed to report the shootings to his division as required and refused to share video with police officers during their criminal investigation.
The city ordered Reign to close again on Dec. 15, for mask and social distancing violations. But by Memorial Day weekend, it was again breaking the rules, the city says, staying open beyond its legal operating hours and blocking the entry of liquor control agents when they came to investigate.
And this summer, liquor control officials blame Reign for incidents on Aug. 18, in which two men were shot outside the venue’s front door; on Aug. 21, during which a 30-year-old man was shot; and on Aug. 28, when a 24-year-old woman was punched in the nose inside the building.
Kelly, a financial adviser who briefly ran for mayor last year, is unlikely to concede those points. In interviews and statements, she has repeatedly refused blame for trouble on Washington Avenue and called for the city to do more to secure downtown.
“This violence is not the fault of any one person or establishment,” she said in a statement after the August shootings. “We must work together toward better solutions, not fight each other and demand small businesses close.”
She is being scapegoated, she and her attorneys have said, because she is Black and Reign attracts a primarily Black clientele.
Alderman Jack Coatar, D-7th Ward, who has been pushing the administration to pull Reign’s license, wasn’t swayed.
“This place is a major problem,” he said. “We can tie them to multiple shootings and that can’t be said of any other bar or club in downtown.”
Mayoral spokesman Nick Dunne said the city is also taking disciplinary action against other downtown establishments as appropriate.
And Patrick Stanley, who owns a cigar bar just down the street from Reign, said that after weeks of watching chaos unfold from his windows, the city has a simple choice.
“If they don’t get shut down,” he said, “I’m shutting my stuff down.”
Reign faces a second hearing, set for Sept. 20. The city has also accused it of being a public nuisance, and, if successful, could close Reign and board up the building for up to a year.
Its landlord is also suing, alleging Reign owes more than $150,000 in rent. Reign has denied the accusation.