No minor problem 

Alcohol violations threaten Whitefish club with closure

“This is serious business,” says Jim Flanagan, owner of Flanagan’s Central Station in Whitefish.

Having received four alcohol violations since summer 2005, most recently on Nov. 30, 2006 for selling alcohol to minors working undercover with law enforcement, and two violations related to serving after hours, Flanagan’s Central Station is in danger of losing its liquor license.

The Montana Department of Revenue’s administrative rules allow its Office of Dispute Resolution to revoke liquor licenses after a license-holder receives four violations. Losing that license, valued at approximately $500,000, would in effect put the popular Flathead music club out of business.

No hearing date has been set by the state to decide Flanagan’s fate.

Flanagan’s holds up to 400 people, has a large stage and dance floor and offers professional sound and lighting, making it one of the valley’s most prominent music venues. In December, Skiing Magazine bestowed on Flanagan’s its top rating among the “Top 5 White Reggae Halls” at U.S. ski resorts. Right now it’s the only venue that regularly brings nationally touring bands to the Flathead. Its closure would strike a serious blow to the area’s live music scene.

Flanagan’s dilemma comes to a head just as the two-year-old business was beginning to find its footing in a finicky Flathead market. The bar’s first year was essentially an experiment. Flanagan put together a couple of big shows, including The Jerry Garcia Band in July 2005 and the North Rocky Mountain Music Festival a month later, both of which sold fewer tickets than expected. At the time, it looked like the Flathead wasn’t ready to support a venue that required consistently large crowds and cover charges to stay afloat.

This year though, Flanagan says, the business has come together.

“We’ve weathered the storm,” he says. “When we put a promotion out on a band that tours nationally, people come out.”

In the coming months, Jim plans to bring Tony Furtado, Drew Emmit (formerly of Leftover Salmon) and The Gourds to his stage. Business has been going so well that Flanagan also plans to promote shows in Missoula this year at The Loft, starting with Emmit on Jan. 31 and DJ Logic in March.

But just as Flanagan’s business has been ramping up, another Flathead entity has also bolstered its operations. In July 2005, the Flathead County Alcohol Enforcement Team (AET) received its first grant of $52,000 from the Montana Board of Crime Control.

The team is composed of officers from city police departments, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Highway Patrol. The sheriff’s office, which actually controls the AET grant, named Flathead County Sheriff’s Deputy Travis Bruyer to lead the team.

Before AET began upping its alcohol compliance checks, Bruyer says, 60 percent of area businesses failed.

“So over 50 percent of the time, someone underage could go in and buy alcohol without a problem,” Bruyer says.

But when AET began stepping up the number of compliance checks in 2005, performing more than 200 in its first year, the rate of failure dropped to 30 percent.

“That’s huge,” Bruyer says, noting that the AET also ticketed more than 1,000 underage drinkers in its first year and was recognized in November by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice for Delinquency Prevention and the Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center in Maryland.

But not all businesses adapted to the AET’s increased attention. In Bigfork last year, The Village Well, the only other Flathead bar delivering touring bands on a regular basis, closed its doors after its third ticket and a 20-day suspension of its liquor license for selling to a minor from the AET. Following the suspension, The Village Well sold its license to The RE-Bar Saloon and Casino, which opened in the same location but doesn’t host touring music acts.

Flanagan admits that guarding against sales to minors is ultimately a bar owner’s responsibility, but he declines to specifically discuss alcohol violations in his club or his appeal to The Office of Dispute Resolution. Flanagan does say he’s planning to retrain his bartenders and purchase $15,000 worth of identification scanners. The scanners will read bar codes and magnetic strips on IDs, telling bouncers and bartenders whether potential patrons are of legal age to drink, and if their licenses are legitimate.

Bruyer acknowledges the dilemma facing bar owners, noting that many have asked him, “How can I get my employees to do their job?” He also notes that the tight job market in the Flathead means that employers don’t always have the option of hiring more selectively. As a result, Bruyer says, he wants to make an effort to reach out to Flathead businesses and their employees.

“Usually [AET officers] come in, give you a ticket, and that’s it,” he says.

Recently, he says, two of his officers have completed a program authorizing them to train Flathead bartenders and clerks on how to better guard against illegal alcohol sales.

But both Flanagan’s and Bruyer’s efforts may be too late. Flanagan has hired a lawyer and plans to fight his violations. Bruyer says grants that pay for the operation of the AET are guaranteed until 2009. At that point, the county will have to decide if the program is worth continuing to fund locally.

In the meantime the anchor of the Flathead music scene hangs in the balance.

Tim Kilpatrick has played bass in Whitefish bands for the last decade, most recently for Shapeshifter 3, an experimental jazz-electronica band.

Kilpatrick notes that two of the Whitefish venues he’s played in the past, The Dire Wolf and The Paddle & Axe, were sold, with one remodeled into a western décor store and the other into a restaurant.

Flanagan’s, he says, is one of the few valley venues left hiring bands “that aren’t straight classic rock.”

“If [Flanagan’s] goes out, we’re all out of business,” Kilpatrick says.

He also laments the possibility of losing access to the non-local music Flanagan’s attracts.

“He’s been bringing in the highest-caliber music I’ve ever seen in this town,” Kilpatrick says. “When he’s gone, people are going to feel it. There won’t be shit left to do in this town.”

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