I.C. Willy’s: A Hobson’s Choice

This from the handy-dandy Wikipedia: A Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore between taking the option or not; “take it or leave it”. The phrase is said to originate from Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner at Cambridge, England. To rotate the use of his horses he offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.

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This week, the Wausau City Council met to consider the non-renewal of the liquor license for I.C. Willy’s.  I regretted being put in the position of having to make the decision.  It was a Hobson’s choice.

The Public Health & Safety Committee met in a marathon session of something like 13-plus hours to take testimony on the matter.  I.C. Willy’s had generated complaints over noise and other matters throughout its relatively short run, just as several other establishments at that location have in the past.  

Is it I.C. Willy’s fault that their predecessors were also notorious?  No.  Frankly, I take some of these types of complaints with a grain of salt.  At the same time, businesses have to recognize the environment that they operate in.  It includes neighbors.  It includes the police and it includes local government.  I.C. Willy’s had their license suspended earlier this year for a couple of weeks, so it’s not like these folks didn’t understand that there were issues.

Are some of the neighbors a little thin-skinned? Probably.  Do I care about a little wildness with the “Girls Gone Wild” tour?  Not really.  Is it realistic to expect 100 percent compliance all of the time with every chapter and verse in the city code?  I don’t think so.  Personally, I can live with a bit of a ragged edge about a lot of things in a community, so long as we’re not talking about serious harm to others.

But here’s what we got stuck dealing with:

– An owner of an establishment who seemed bound and determined to cultivate a bad relationship with the neighbors, the police and the committee that had something to say about his license.  It’s not smart, just like the message on the sign above from last night isn’t.  And when you make things personal, they sometimes tend to get that way.

–  The choice was to either renew the license — which is kind of like saying that it’s all okay — or to not renew the license.  To not renew the license is a very severe penalty for the matters at hand, in my view.  It puts jobs, commerce, a few hundred thousand dollars worth of investment and a night spot that’s popular with some people out of business.  It’s bad.  But opposing the non-renewal would have required going against a unanimous decision of a committee that obviously looked into this situation exhaustively.  And if there are no consequences to flaunting the conditions of licensure, then what’s the point?

I don’t agree with all committee decisions or necessarily vote with them.  I’ve ranted plenty about what I see as counterproductive rules about alcohol with various incarnations of the Public Health & Safety Committee since 1998.  Still, it’s important to respect the process and there was a pile of process with this one.  If I want the decisions of the committees that I serve on or chair to be taken seriously by the City Council, then I need to accord the same respect to the work of other committees.  It’s not about being a rubber stamp, but it’s about having legitimate reasons to see things differently.  I didn’t.  If there had been a more measured option available, I would have been interested.  There wasn’t.

It’s also important to note that even if I had found compelling reasons to personally oppose non-renewal of I.C. Willy’s license, I most certainly would have lost.  I don’t mind doing that sometimes, but the folks from I.C. Willy’s gave me precious little rationale to make a stand for them on this one.  There would be some amount of appreciation and some amount of contempt for either a yes or a no vote.  So who’s respect should a person care more about when all was said and done?  Council members, the city staff and a group of exasperated constituents — or a guy who had plenty to do with making his own bed and sending things heading down the path to which they ultimately led?

Wausau is not overloaded with fun night spots for young people and we need to understand that these clubs are not always going to be everyone’s cup of tea (or martini.)  It’s a drag to have to see one close over what were arguably perhaps largely petty, but consistent and persistent issues. It would be good if some middle ground could have been found.  The time to look for it was long before last night.

JR

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