James Haney’s hope to invest in Lawrenceville’s growing bar scene depends now on Common Pleas Judge Terrence O’Brien to decide whether, in spite of a troubled past, his reputation merits a liquor license.
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in February rejected Mr. Haney’s application for a license transfer and granted the community group Lawrenceville United the status to intervene in opposition to it. Mr. Haney’s attorneys appealed both LCB decisions, resulting in Tuesday’s hearing before Judge O’Brien.
During the proceedings, the judge confirmed Lawrenceville United’s right to intervene on appeal. He is expected to rule next month on whether Mr. Haney deserves a license transfer to open Sorrell’s at 5238 Butler St.
As the neighborhood becomes trendier and pricier, Lawrenceville United has tried to keep pace with what has been dubbed its South Side-ification. With the uptick of interest from housing and business developers, the nonprofit established a process for the neighborhood to vet proposals.
Executive director Lauren Byrne testified that Lawrenceville United represents 800 members, 600 of them residents.
She said the organization has so far invited 25 parties to meet with neighbors, present their plans and work out possible snags. Of those, she said, the membership and board have opposed three, all bars, including the proposal Mr. Haney made to the group last year.
Lawrenceville United’s pro bono attorney, Tom Madigan, provided the court a petition signed by 60 people who live near the proposed Sorrell’s. Although license transfers on one site are not legally relevant to what’s around it, Mr. Madigan said bad repute is relevant to those who live and work nearby.
Mr. Haney said he is buying the building from cousins. He told the court he will buy even if he doesn’t get the license because “I’m too far in now; my hand money is nonrefundable.”
The license transfer requires a demonstration of “good repute,” Mr. Madigan said. “People of bad repute bring with them the increased risk” of bad behavior.
Mr. Haney, 42, pleaded guilty in 1997 to one count of simple assault and in 2000 was convicted on two felony counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. He served four years in prison.
He testified that in 2010, at the end of his probation, he was involved in a child-custody dispute in which he pleaded to disorderly conduct. He testified to a disorderly conduct incident two years later involving an ex-girlfriend.
Besides his history, Lawrenceville United red-flagged his choice of Thomas Simonic as Sorrell’s likely manager. Mr. Simonic was associated with the Moose lodge on 51st Street before its charter was pulled in the spring after a late-night code enforcement visit. Pittsburgh police patrolman Kevin Foley testified that police, building and fire inspectors witnessed disorderly crowds and almost-naked women surrounded by people waving money.
He said Mr. Simonic introduced himself as the night manager, but Mr. Miller said Mr. Simonic was not associated with the lodge at that time.
Officer Foley said officers responded every Thursday night to complaints of drunken behavior, drug activities, illegal parking and after-hours operations at the Moose lodge.
Mr. Haney’s decision to seek an extra license to be open from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. for $50 a year set off opponents’ suspicion that he would operate 24/7, which he called “nonsense.” The after-hours license would not allow him to sell alcohol, but he could feed people during such events in Lawrenceville as “Art All Night,” he said, adding that the $50 would pay for itself with several events.
Mr. Haney is in the scrap business. He said he hopes to get out of it, that opening a bar and restaurant has been “one of my passions.” His father had once operated a bar at the same site, he said, and the proposed name, Sorrell’s, is in honor of his father’s name.
In questioning Mr. Haney, his lawyer, Nick Miller, asked if he would want his business to reflect badly on his family, and Mr. Haney said he wouldn’t. Mr. Miller argued that opposition is based on “fear and speculation.” He told the judge, “The man has served his time. We know attorneys who have felonies and are still practicing.”
During the testimony of others, Mr. Haney sat in the back of the courtroom with a fixed, woeful gaze.
Randy Castriota testified that he wouldn’t hesitate to associate with Mr. Haney in business and attested to his being a good neighbor in McKees Rocks, where the men operate nearby businesses. Mr. Castriota, who lives in Peters, owns a recycling and roll-off service business near Mr. Haney’s scrap yard.
“I’ve known Jim about 12 years,” he said. “He lived for a while in one of my apartments” and paid the rents on time. “He keeps a clean yard and called the police on someone who was trying to break into my property.”
He said he knew of Mr. Haney’s background, “but I think people deserve a second chance.”
The proposed Sorrell’s has been vacant for years.
Witnesses spoke of its disrepair before Mr. Haney repaired the back roof and cleared debris. Mr. Haney said he has improved the property, cut weeds and would bring life to a vacant site.
“No one,” he said, “is talking about the good things I’m doing.”
Diana Nelson Jones: 412-263-1626 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gazette.com/citywalk.