Saturday, July 20, 2002

Hearing may dry up Uncle Milt's

Supporters say drugs, crime are not bar's fault

By Robert Anglen,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A string of Cincinnati police officers testified Friday that Uncle Milt's bar is the hub of nighttime drug activity in Avondale, a safe haven for dealers and a threat to public safety.

        The bar's supporters contended that city officials are being pressured by operators of the newly opened Ronald McDonald House to shut down the bar, which they say is being blamed for all of the neighborhood's problems.

[photo] Ronald McDonald House is across the Burnet Avenue from Uncle Milt's bar.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        But after an all-day hearing, the decision on whether Uncle Milt's will continue serving spirits is in the hands of the Ohio Division of Liquor Control and likely won't be made for several weeks.

        “Normally when you go into Uncle Milt's, it is a who's who of the organized crime of Avondale,” Officer Jeff Smallwood told a state hearing officer. “It provides a meeting place for drug dealers, a safe haven for them.”

        City officials, who are asking the state not to renew Uncle Milt's liquor license, ran through a litany of offenses that have occurred in and around the Burnet Avenue bar, including a homicide, shootings, assaults and drug deals.

        Officers described how confidential informants bought drugs from a bartender who kept her stash behind the bar. They showed video surveillance tapes of dealers going in and out of the bar to do business on the sidewalk. They provided names of some of the city's most wanted who had been arrested at the bar and detailed incidents that have officers responding nightly to Uncle Milt's.

        “I think she is getting a raw deal,” Avondale resident Janice Arrington said of Milt's owner Deanna Morgan. “They haven't given her a chance to clean it up.”

        Ms. Arrington contends that the real reason the city wants to shut down the bar is because of the Ronald McDonald House across the street — the location from which officers conducted much of their surveillance.

        “If that Ronald McDonald House wasn't there, they wouldn't be caring about what's going on,” she said. “If they tear it down, people are going to lose their jobs.”

        McDonald House employees said the bar creates an atmosphere of fear. They said they now use a shuttle to drive families the half-block to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center because families are afraid to walk in the area.

        “The Ronald McDonald House is a home away from home for families with critically ill children,” said Rory Drennan, a worker at the home. “But the families who come are scared. They've asked not to have a room that overlooks the bar. We've seen drug deals, gambling, open containers — even gunshots.”

        Uncle Milt's lawyer, Peter Swenty, questioned Cincinnati Councilman Chris Monzel about it: “Has the Ronald McDonald House put pressure on City Council to get rid of Uncle Milt's? Yes or no?”

        “If anything, we've gotten pressure from the residents who say this kind of open drug activity is unacceptable,” Mr. Monzel said.

        The Avondale Community Council wants Uncle Milt's to stay open. In a letter of support, community council members said Ms. Morgan has owned the bar only a short time since her father and brother both died and hasn't had a chance to turn the business around.

        “We are also concerned that current business and property owners may be shut down and their property unfairly handed over to developers below market value,” the letter said.

        Avondale Community Council Vice President Fulton Jefferson — who has taken over the management of Milt's — said plans are to turn the bar into a restaurant where families staying at the McDonald House can go for food and drink.

        “We are trying to revitalize Burnet Avenue,” he said. “We haven't had time to implement Uncle Milt's last wish: to turn it into a restaurant.”

        Throughout the hearing, Mr. Swenty continued to point out that many of the incidents officers described came from the area around the bar, not the bar itself.

        “The city is attempting to blame Uncle Milt's bar for everything,” he said. “The question will be if the hearing officer believes that.”

        Police Officers Lenny LaBrecque and Don Meece started watching Milt's last fall, after noticing an increase in calls to the bar.

        Officer LaBrecque, who is in charge of reviewing liquor applications in District 4, presented a foot-high stack of incident reports from around Uncle Milt's that occurred since 2001.

        “There is a high number of calls for service at the bar — and violent calls,” Officer LaBrecque said. “There is a steady stream of crimes occurring at the location.”


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