In June, Wes Spearman appeared before a St. Paul deputy legislative hearing officer to plead his case for a liquor license. The longstanding Grand Avenue restaurant and bar he operates, Billy’s on Grand, has been serving alcohol through a license officially still held by the previous business owner, which is problematic for two reasons.
First, the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections has sought to revoke the establishment’s existing license following gunshots in and outside the bar, among other documented incidents triggering escalating fines and municipal penalties. And second, the corporate entity that holds Billy’s on Grand’s existing liquor and business licenses may soon no longer exist.
“I recently had some contact from the current owner, the RJMP Group I purchased the business from two and a half years ago,” said Spearman, in a recent phone interview. “He stated he’s dissolving the company. I don’t know what that will do to our business. There has to be some corporation (acting as license holder).”
Since his June hearing, which drew public testimony from about a dozen residents for and against his proposal, Spearman said he’s heard radio silence. The city has yet to inform him what the hearing officer’s recommendation to the city council will be, or when the city council will consider his license application.
“It’s been frustrating at best,” said Spearman, late last month. “To say we’re heading into the month of November, and to not have a response to our request is unacceptable. It’s been very discriminatory to my business.”
A rough debut
Billy’s on Grand’s current licenses were issued around June 2020 to the RJMP Group, which is owned by Randall Johnson and Matthew Prendergast. RJMP, in turn, entered into a management agreement around April 2021 with Spearman’s outfit, the DWD Group, which took over operation of Billy’s on May 28, 2021.
The debut was far from smooth. Residents and city officials became alarmed after 132 documented police calls for service over the course of a year.
Last December, an administrative law judge supportive of the city’s proposed fines said that while not all the police calls could be attributed definitively to the restaurant and bar, averages of one police call every three days were too compelling to ignore. Billy’s was fined $500 by the city in February 2022 and $1,000 in February of this year.
As a legal appeal hearing before the judge was being scheduled last year, St. Paul police investigated a call for disorderly conduct shortly before 1 a.m. on May 21, 2022, but reported being barred from entering the establishment. Based on that incident and the restaurant’s previous history, the city Department of Safety and Inspections later recommended full revocation of Billy’s liquor, patio and entertainment licenses.
The city council has yet to vote on that recommendation. On April 5, the city council voted 6-0 to allow the DWD Group’s application for a new liquor license to move forward before DSI, even as revocation of the existing license hovered as a possibility overhead.
On Oct. 23, a DSI spokesperson said the matter was still before the city’s legislative hearing office, which had yet to complete its report.
A rebrand to the Gather Eatery and Bar?
Acknowledging “hiccups” since his group reopened the bar and restaurant in 2021, Spearman approached community groups such as the Summit Hill Association last May and presented a plan to partially remodel and then rebrand Billy’s as the Gather Eatery and Bar.
The concept called for “elevated” bar food, creative cocktails, small bites, live music and theme nights such as Karaoke, Latin and country, and ultimately a reservation-only “speakeasy”-style side room and family gathering space.
In an effort to diminish its reputation for hosting an afterhours club-like atmosphere, the bar currently closes at midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, rather than the 2 a.m. closing time allowed by its licenses.
“Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about the way I have been treated during this process,” said Spearman, in an email Tuesday. “I have done everything in my power to work with the city and residents to make sure I’m being a good neighbor. I’ve proposed a re-brand for my business so that it is more in line with what the neighborhood wants, I close earlier than what I have to in order to appease those who live in the area. I qualified for a grant to help me with the re-brand and I’m not able to obtain it to begin work because I have no license.”
Waiting for a decision
Some neighbors were instantly skeptical of the Gather Eatery proposal, given the history of gun violence in the area. Spearman said he would put $225,000 toward the rebrand, a figure that struck neighboring residents as too low for a top-to-bottom concept change and partial remodel.
Spearman said that given the hold-up with the city in determining if he qualifies for a liquor license, even that sum has been out of reach.
“Without a license, my bank is not willing to take a chance on a business that we don’t know will have a liquor license moving forward,” he said.
“I was in heavy contact with DSI at the time prior to making this proposal,” he continued. “We had told our customer base that we were closing (for the remodel). We had tagged our tables. And then all of a sudden (the deputy legislative hearing officer) was saying, ‘We don’t know how long this decision is going to take.’ We were thinking 30 days. We’re well outside of 90 days.”
On Oct. 23, a legislative aide to St. Paul City Council member Rebecca Noecker confirmed in an email that the matter still rested with the legislative hearing officer, who had yet to complete her report to the city council.
“Her recommendations are forthcoming and will be heard by council when they’re complete,” she wrote.
Monica Haas, executive director of the Summit Hill Association, in an email that the delay in a decision “negatively impacts our community for neighbors, the property owners, the business itself and the city of St. Paul.”
“It’s unprecedented that any business in St. Paul has had to wait so long for a decision, and we hope that no other business owners will have to go through this inefficient process,” she said.
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