Bruce Vielmetti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
|Family Dollar, 930 N. 27th St., Milwaukee (Photo: Google)|
A judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the city of Milwaukee's effort to shut down a Family Dollar store near N. 27th and W. State streets, where many low-income residents buy food, but an alderman calls a crime magnet.
The store had sought a temporary restraining order after the Common Council voted last month not to renew the licenses it needs to operate, effective July 1, a move the store said would harm its many customers who shop for groceries with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
The store's attorney, Joshua Gimbel, also said its due process rights were violated by the glitch-filled, video conferenced-nature of the city's hearings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Assistant City Attorney Tyrone St. Junior II argued to Circuit Judge Jeffrey Conen that Family Dollar got all the due process it deserved, was unlikely to prevail in the case, and wouldn't suffer irreparable harm because the store is just one of thousands it owns nationwide.
But Conen noted the harm is more likely to befall the customers who shop there, and that remaining open risks little harm to the city. He granted the order and a schedule into the fall for the sides to brief the matter.
According to Family Dollar's lawsuit, a 4-1 Licensing Committee vote to deny license renewals at the store was ostensibly based on nuisance complaints, but seemed driven by Ald. Bob Bauman's dislike of chain stores.
In an interview Tuesday, Bauman admitted he never shops at chain stores, and has never been inside the Family Dollar, but called it "out of control, a crime magnet, the most problematic business on the west side."
Bauman, who lives two blocks away, said he often sees loitering, litter and parking lot commotion outside the store.
Last August, the city issued the store — which has operated 16 years at the location — a nuisance notice after four incidents that summer. Two were shoplifting or vandalism the store reported, and the fourth was a public drinking citation from police to someone in the parking lot.
Store management submitted a plan to address nuisance behavior, spent more than $30,000 on improvements inside and outside, and the store received no more citations. In February it submitted requests to renew licenses for weights and measures and food sales. About a third of the store's business comes from food sales.
In late April, it was notified that residents objected. At the May committee hearing, Keith Stanley of Near West Side Partners testified that Family Dollar has been an asset to the area, especially during the coronavirus pandemic but he'd prefer a new kind of development at the site, 930 N. 27th St.
According to Family Dollar's lawsuit, it was only after leading questions from Bauman that Stanley said he opposed license renewal. Gimbel was not allowed any follow up questions.
A police captain testified that other than some litter and loitering, there were no issues at the store since it adopted its plan in September. He was also questioned by Bauman, without follow up by Gimbel.
"In his closing statement, Alderman Bauman expressed an anti-national chain store bias," the lawsuit states. "He claimed, with no evidence, that Family Dollar could care less about the residents or this location. He encouraged residents to patronize another locally owned store across the street, Kilbourn Kitchen, at the expense of the Store."
Last month, the Common Council voted 9-6 to accept the committee's recommendation to deny license renewal.
Gimbel's suit notes that some testimony was cut off or unintelligible over the video conference meetings, and that Bauman was allowed to appear in person before the license committee, while others had to connect remotely.
He also suggested people who may support the store might not have had the means to attend the meetings via online video conferencing.
Gimbel said Family Dollar operates about 20 stores in the city. He admits some have problems. "But here, it seems if you call in a retail theft, it's your fault and held against you," he said.
Five years ago, the city took action against a nearby business that ultimately was sold and razed after years of trouble and hundreds of police calls. That business, 27th St. Tobacco, on the southeast corner of 27th and Kilbourn, is now a fenced, landscaped parking area adjacent to Penfield Children's center.
Contact Bruce Vielmetti at (414) 224-2187 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.