The Raging Bull Saloon, on Saturday in downtown Augusta. A sign in window says it will be closed until Jan. 3 because of a mandate from Gov. Janet Mills. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — City councilors have granted a liquor license to the Raging Bull Saloon, despite a recommendation from a city licensing board to deny the bar’s license renewal request following a number of complaints that drew police to the downtown establishment in its first year.

Owners of the bar, which is currently closed, said they’ve already met with police to discuss problems there. The owners also say they have hired security workers, want to contribute to a safe and growing downtown, acknowledged they were so hard up for business in the coronavirus pandemic that they marketed to a clientele they hadn’t planned to seek initially, and they will now ban anyone who makes trouble there.

“It has been a very tough first year of business for us,” Brad Wallace, one of the two owners, said during Thursday’s council meeting held over Zoom. He said he and other owner Ryan Sutherburg have never owned a bar or restaurant before. Their experienced partner, Hallowell businessman Chris Vallee, had health problems and had to back out of the business. Wallace said the business struggled due to being closed down when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

He said they reopened when the state gave the OK, and they stayed open until 1 a.m., to attract customers by being one of few bars open at that hour. It was a bid to recoup some of their growing investment to keep the business open.

“All the patrons from other bars everywhere else were coming to us, and that’s not the clientele we planned to pitch ourselves to,” Wallace said. “We tried to handle security ourselves, but that may not have been our strong suit. We were trying to promote to a young crowd, 24 to 35, and that’s who we had before corona hit. Corona hit and we had to market to anybody, just to keep the establishment open.”

Sutherburg said they “want to be a positive influence in the up and coming downtown” and are willing to do whatever it takes to run a safe business.

Councilors said the bar is on warning that it needs to reduce the need for police to respond there. A city attorney noted the city can revoke the bar’s license at any time, as long as due process is followed, if it doesn’t address the problems that led a city licensing board to recommend against renewing its liquor license.

A city licensing board, made up of the police chief, a code officer and city clerk, recommended the liquor license for the saloon not be renewed for another year based in part on the number of complaints made in the year it has been open.

Police Chief Jared Mills noted the licensing board voted to deny the license in part because members felt there were enough concerns about the business that the decision on whether to grant it a license should be made by city councilors.

City Manager William Bridgeo noted the licensing board was formed for the purpose of considering license requests and approving all that were clearly noncontroversial, while sending others that could be problematic to the council for review.

A memo from Mills cited 17 calls for service at Raging Bull over the last 12 months, including fights, assaults, disturbances, patrons being loud, and that some staff and patrons were not wearing masks.

While some complaints were determined to be unfounded by officers, others resulted in three arrests and a summons being issued.

Mills said Augusta Police spoke with state Center for Disease Control officials who indicated they had received nine complaints about alleged COVID-19 violations at the Raging Bull, some of which they continued to investigate. But Mills wrote “as of this entry the Maine CDC have not found any significant violations to take action on.”

Mills said the prime reason he recommended the license renewal go to councilors for consideration was not the alleged COVID-19 restrictions violations but the other calls at the Raging Bull, mostly disorderly conduct, noise and fighting complaints.

He said no other establishment in the city has had anywhere near the number of complaints requiring a police response as the Raging Bull did over the last year.

Wallace said he’s working with his landlord, Richard Parkhurst, to add insulation in the bar to dampen the impact of the noise to try to address noise complaints from neighbors. He said he does not believe noise from the business exceeds the city’s noise ordinance limits. The bar owners also said they were considering closing earlier, both during the week and on weekends.

The Raging Bull, which features live country music, had only been open about four and half months when coronavirus pandemic rose to prominence, across the world and locally, prompting it to be closed down along with other non-essential businesses in Maine. State and local public health restrictions kept restaurants and bars closed through the spring, and limited the number of people who could be served inside, part of efforts to keep the contagious virus from spreading.

In mid-October, singing in public was banned, putting an end to karaoke at the bar.

Gov. Janet Mills recently extended the 9 p.m., curfew on restaurants and bars to Jan. 3 in response to an ongoing, record-breaking, spike in the number of COVID-19 cases since the end of October.

Councilors voted 7-1 to renew the saloon’s liquor license, with Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti the lone vote against. Conti did not elaborate on her vote, though she asked, earlier in the meeting, how many times police had been called to respond to the location.

Other councilors said they believed the bar owners were sincere in wanting to right their business and quiet complaints.

“I can’t support taking away their license at this time,” said outgoing At-Large Councilor Darek Grant. “I feel like it’d be kicking these guys while they’re already down in this pandemic. I believe them both, sincerely, when they say they’re going to look at improvements. They know they’re on notice and I am willing to give them a shot and I hope the rest of the council is as well.”

Wallace and Sutherburg said the business closed before its liquor license expired and they expect to remain closed, due to coronavirus restrictions and concerns about spreading the virus, until they feel they can operate the business safely and profitably.

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