Felton Club: Tough talk always follows violence at city’s troubled bars

The term ‘nuisance bar’ gets thrown around a lot to describe certain liquor-serving establishments in Philadelphia where violence seems to flow as much as the drinks.

But the city doesn’t have any official, cross-departmental list of nuisance bars, and its enforcement unit is limited in manpower. Shutting them down, not coincidentally, isn’t easy.

After another example of a bar with a long history of violence, the Felton Club, met tough talk from Mayor Michael Nutter last week, local officials admitted the process for shutting down troubled bars and clubs is mired in red tape and propped up by a patchwork of laws that affords little city authority.

“In order for us to close an establishment, the burden of proof for us locally is pretty high,” said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who represents the 7th District where the Felton Club is located.

The power to permanently close a problem business lies largely with the state.

“The more complaints there are, whether generated through the community or through police, [the more] we look at the property and consider what actions need to be taken,” said Beth Grossman, director of the District Attorney’s Public Nuisance Task Force, which has the power to seek a court-ordered shutdown for up to a year.

But the unit’s responsibilities far outweigh its manpower: Out of a total staff of 600 employees at the District Attorney’s office, eight prosecutors work for the Public Nuisance Task force and only two are dedicated to overseeing nuisance bar issues.

Too few personnel to deal

“When someone gets cited now, because of the lack of manpower, it takes longer than anyone would like to get a hearing and get the matter resolved,” said state House Liquor Control Committee chairman John Taylor, who is working with Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Phila., to hammer out details of a bill to expand shutdown powers. “We want to give them some kind of process that would make that happen as soon as possible.”

Taylor expects to conduct a hearing on the matter in June and would like
legislation passed by the end of the calendar year.

Flying under the city’s radar

There is no central authority responsible for notifying the Public Nuisance Task Force when a shuttered problem establishment reopens, as the Felton Club did following an L&I cease operations order provoked by shootings in December and January.

“Perhaps this is something that will have to be looked at in the future,” said Grossman. “But if nothing’s legally keeping a bar shut, then it’s appropriate to reopen. We’re all confined by what the law states.” She also noted that she “absolutely” supports House reform efforts.

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