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'Rowdy' Country Bar Planned In Streeterville Slammed By Neighbors, Alderman

By  David Matthews and Heather Cherone | July 25, 2017 5:59am | Updated on July 25, 2017 9:45am

 A band plays in this file photo from Firewater Saloon.
A band plays in this file photo from Firewater Saloon.
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Firewater Saloon

STREETERVILLE — A Northwest Side country bar wants to open Downtown, but the alderman and a key neighborhood group don't want it. 

The Streeterville Organization of Active Residents has urged Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) to reject Firewater Saloon's plan to open at 403 E. Illinois St. in River East Plaza, citing the Edison Park club's "rowdy" clientele. 

Firewater, 6689 N. Oliphant Ave., bills itself as the only country bar on the city's Northwest Side. Firewater has 78 beers on its menu and hosts live music three nights a week.

The bar presents itself as a good time, but the Streeterville group sees Firewater as a place that encourages "late-night noise, theft and battery," among other problems. 

"We don't want a late-night honky tonk saloon," Deborah Gershbein, the group's president, said Monday.

The group sent its letter amid heightened scrutiny for Downtown bars some neighbors see as a public nuisance. River North pizzeria/club Bottled Blonde faces another set of disciplinary hearings this summer after neighbor complaints, and the city shut down three clubs and a restaurant in the Gold Coast last month over building code violations.

Firewater applied for a liquor license in Streeterville last month, causing the neighborhood group to speak out.

"Streeterville residents object to this type of establishment in the community as it does not serve the needs and profile of the community," Gershbein wrote in a letter last week to Reilly. "The patronage of the proposed (bar) would be in conflict with the area residents who are presently attracted to the Streeterville neighborhood due to its atmosphere."

Gershbein said her group doesn't oppose new businesses moving into the area, just loud ones. River East Plaza, a loft building on the Ogden Slip, houses apartments and is close to many other homes in the neighborhood. Pinstripes, an upscale bowling alley, opened in the building more than two years ago.

Reilly ushered through a new city ordinance last month prohibiting new liquor licenses in River East Plaza, which sits between Lake Shore Drive and McClurg Court on Illinois Street. Reilly said then that the move was "preventative" without mentioning any prospective bars trying to open in the plaza. Dick's Last Resort was once in the building before moving to Marina City in 2008. 

“This is a defensive measure to ensure we are bringing restaurants to the neighborhood and not crazy nightclubs,” Reilly told DNAinfo in June.

But the restrictions won't take effect for months. Reilly sent a letter objecting to Firewater's liquor license application a day after it was filed, Martha Donnelly, one of his aides, said Monday.

Jamie Suckow, a Firewater owner, said the bar signed a tentative lease underneath the Streeterville Target in October, but has yet to personally meet with Reilly to present its case. Suckow said the alderman is running an opposition campaign to her bar without knowing anything about it.

"He said no before looking at any of the facts," she said. "We're perceived as a rowdy nightclub with bottle service; we don't even sell pitchers of beer."

Suckow said she just learned "the severity" of Reilly's objection last week. Firewater hosted a community forum Monday in Streeterville to sway neighbors. Suckow doesn't believe officials from Reilly's office or the Streeterville group attended, but she said the majority of people who did left feeling OK about Firewater's arrival.

"All their signatures were on the petition looking forward to line dancing," she said.

Firewater agreed to some concessions with neighbors Monday night, including closing at 1 a.m. on weekends like Pinstripes nearby, Suckow said. The bar plans to spend nearly $1.5 million constructing its Streeterville location, not including legal fees associated with its prolonged liquor license application, she said.

The bar's liquor license application is still under review at City Hall, which can take up to two months to vet applications, said Lilia Chacon, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

"All liquor licenses require community input as part of this process which the city takes into account," Chacon said in an email.

Country bars remain somewhat of a rarity Downtown, with exceptions including Bub City and Old Crow Smokehouse in River North. But the success of big annual country festivals including the LakeShake on Northerly Island and Windy City Smokeout near the North Branch of the Chicago River show the genre's growing popularity in Chicago.

Firewater Saloon had also planned to open a bar in Morgan Park on the city's Southwest Side, but those plans were growing uncertain as of Monday.

Firewater gained notoriety as the bar where Chicago police officers Donald and Dina Markham were drinking the 2015 night Sgt. Donald Markham was found dead in his home. Donald Markham's death was first ruled a suicide, but Dina Markham, his widow, killed herself days after learning police were reopening their investigation amid new signs it was mishandled. 

Howard Ludwig contributed.

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