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Alley fight: Life behind bars problematic

The city of Ashland is facing a dilemma of how to deal with ongoing conflicts on Will Dodge Way, where two nightlife businesses can’t see eye-to-eye with a landlord whose property is across Will Dodge Way, the alley between Lithia Way and East Main Street.

Bob Kendrick, who owns a building with two seasonal condo units in the alley, has a long laundry list of concerns and complaints about O’Ryan Irish Pub, the Vinyl Club and the bars' patrons. Kendrick said he has endured noise, smoke and people leaving the bars to vomit and urinate behind his building for years.

He is planning to lease his property at 145 East Main St. (adjacent to the Irish Pub at 137 East Main St.; the Vinyl Club is on a floor below the pub), to a new restaurant with its own bar. Another restaurant with bar is planned for 141 East Main St., but Kendrick is not associated with that application.

“The two new bars will be in no way managed like the Irish Pub and the Vinyl Club,” Kendrick said.

“It has just gotten worse recently,” Kendrick said of the 2014 change in ownership of the Vinyl Club. “I can’t sleep at night because of the noise, and sometimes I’m frightened to go outside.”

The Irish Pub and Vinyl Club, adjacent to each other on Will Dodge Way, have been nightlife establishments under different names and owners in Ashland for several decades, according to business registry documents. The businesses have been known for various issues such as noise, smoke and patrons’ behavior, and the Vinyl Club recently had complaints about violence and staffing violations.

The owner of the Irish Pub, Michael Szelong, said Kendrick created the problem on his own by building his apartments next to the two already-established nightlife businesses. He also accused Kendrick of “trying to undermine” the Irish Pub by planning to have two bars next to his establishment.

The owner of the Vinyl Club said Kendrick only “complains about him” without actually working with him to address the problem.

Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara told the City Council March 5 that police are strategically staffed to prevent the issues and are working with the owners of the bars to address concerns. But he said the problem and the conflict “will never go away,” due to the nature of the establishments.

The ongoing conflict

The Vinyl Club is open three nights a week — Thursday through Saturday — from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

“They open 12 hours a week, and within that time, they destroy the neighborhood,” Kendrick said, as he cited a list of complaints including fighting, loitering in the alley after hours, vomiting, littering, loud noise and smoking. He has a collection of photos and videos of these activities that he recorded over the years since at least 2009.

Szelong said Kendrick “knew full well of the two bars, which are very well known for being noisy,” before he built his apartments.

“And he still chose to build his condos there,” Szelong said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say we are in position to pay to mitigate the problems.”

Police often pay attention to Will Dodge Way on the weekends because of the significant number of problems related to the Irish Pub and the Vinyl Club, O’Meara said.

“We check on overcrowding … littering, urinating, they are some of the common violations down there,” O’Meara said. “Fights also have been reported, and we take care of that, but the problem will never go away … if you are going to have a nightclub, it will happen.”

Will Dodge Way has been a destination for smokers in downtown because of a city ordinance that prohibits smoking on downtown streets. Customers of the Irish Pub use the bar’s emergency exit in the back to smoke.

According to Kendrick, Will Dodge Way is also a place that attracts a number of transients, who are “aggressive” and “noisy,” he said.

Szelong acquired the Irish Pub in 2017 and said his business is “operating in good faith” to address the concerns in the back porch to reduce noise and divert customers from using Will Dodge Way. Szelong has reorganized his bar to concentrate noise to the front of the premise facing East Main Street, installed a new climate-control system and purchased new security devices.

Reached through a Facebook message, the owner of the Vinyl Club, Michael Leslie, said, “Mr. Kendrick can think what he wants of me, because he also doesn't try and communicate to me, but writes letters and complains about me.”

“(Kendrick) is campaigning for all these things for the neighborhood, but he’s also actively undermining us,” Szelong said. “I don’t understand how adding two bars wall-to-wall to my business will help solve the problem.”

Violence at the Vinyl Club

Last year, police dealt with seven assault cases and eight disorderly conduct issues between the two establishments, O’Meara said.

One of the cases happened in November 2017 and resulted in the arrest of Marc Bokish, a bartender at the Vinyl Club, after he allegedly attacked a patron. According to the victim’s father, his son had a dislodged nose, cracked bones between the eyes and around the eye socket and broken and dislodged teeth after getting eight to 12 blows to his head. He went through two facial reconstruction surgeries.

Bokish has not been charged in the case, which will be brought before a grand jury, Ashland police said. Leslie confirmed Bokish is no longer his employee.

“My son almost died,” said Ray Kistler, the father of the victim, at a March 5 City Council meeting. “I don’t see any value in having this club. … When will it end on Will Dodge Way? What business has two officers monitoring it every night?”

One video, taken by Kendrick in 2017, shows a group of three people that circled a man and beat him down on Will Dodge Way. A police car was in the frame, but it’s unclear whether there was a police presence.

In another video of the Vinyl Club, a woman was pushed to the ground by a man, with witnesses quickly intervening.

“The Vinyl Club has always had a culture of violence that has been accepted for too long,” Kistler said Monday. “The club needs to change its culture. It needs a new owner.”

An uncertain future

The Vinyl Club is facing an investigation by the OLCC, spokeswoman Christie Scott confirmed. O’Meara said it’s because the Vinyl Club has been hiring uncertified staff.

OLCC can choose to revoke a liquor license, but the process could take more than a year, according to the commission.

The City Council doesn’t have authority to revoke a business’ liquor license, according to the city attorney.

O’Meara said the department has updated its strategy, increasing the frequency of patrols in the alley, so officers can do their jobs more efficiently. The city is also working closely with the OLCC and reports incidents to the agency, O’Meara said.

“I wouldn’t want anybody saying the police are protecting the Vinyl Club,” O’Meara said. “The Vinyl Club has been there 20 years, there’s a demand for it. … We do our best to do what we can.”

Kendrick said the city needs to put conditions on the Vinyl Club and the Irish Pub, to force the establishments to control their patrons in the alley.

Szelong said he’s proposing a change in the city’s ordinance to loosen the smoking ban in downtown after 10 p.m., so he could encourage his customers to avoid Will Dodge Way.

Leslie said the Vinyl Club recently increased its staff to keep the club safer and make sure customers leave the alley after hours.

Both O’Meara and City Administrator John Karns have said the bar owners have been operating in good faith.

“My position is that I need these owners to make good-faith efforts, and so far I feel like they have,” O’Meara said Thursday.

Kistler, an architect, also brought up some concerns about the building possibly not being up to code.

Karns, in an interview Thursday, said the fire marshal has cited the Vinyl Club in the past for overcrowding, among other violations, but does not consider the building to be a fire hazard that needs to be shut down.

Councilor Dennis Slattery asked the police chief to come back with a potential solution besides adding patrols to monitor the alley.

“We can spend extra time down on Will Dodge Way,” O’Meara said Thursday in a phone interview. “But I don’t know if there’s going to be a solution.”

— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.

(March 14: Story updated to remove an erroneous statement that Bob Kendrick plans to open two new bars adjacent to the Irish Pub. As now corrected in the story, applications have been submitted for two new restaurants with full bars adjacent to the Irish Pub. Kendrick is the landlord for one property, but not the other.)