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Boat Club remains docked

Claire Heininger | Thursday, January 26, 2006

The ship can’t sail yet.

Campus buzz that the popular South Bend bar the Boat Club – a notorious underage drinking haven until police raids forced it to shut down more than a year ago – is on the verge of reopening its doors was temporarily quieted Wednesday when the St. Joseph County Alcohol and Tobacco Commission voted to revoke the bar owner’s liquor license rather than allow it to be transferred, a board member said.

But standing inside the bar Wednesday evening with a small cluster of dejected employees, the bar’s manager vowed it was cleaning up its image and should be given a chance to rebuild its reputation.

“It’s not the same as it was before,” when minors could easily gain admittance, said the manager, Dahna VanVynckt. She said the bar plans to appeal the commission’s ruling and attempt to reopen as soon as possible.

“We’re trying to make it a better place; we want to work with the community; we want to attract everybody,” she said. “They may see the old image, but that’s OK, we’d like them to take a look. Just for the tradition of the place – we’ve put in a lot of effort and time.”

South Bend resident Joseph L. Ready had asked the commission for a transfer of the license from Boat Club owner Michael McNeff, who has held the license in escrow since the Indiana State Alcohol and Tobacco Commission forced him to close the bar in December 2004, said Sara Bewley, a county ATC member and Indiana State Excise Police officer. Ready sought the transfer under the name Steady’s, Inc.

But McNeff and his attorney Mitchell Heppenheimer didn’t abide by the terms of their agreement with the state commission that allowed them to sell the bar, Bewley said.

“It was supposed to be a transfer to a non-related party,” Bewley said, referring to the “arm’s-length transaction” agreement the bar made with the state ATC – an arrangement forbidding McNeff from selling the license to anyone who would allow him to remain involved in the bar.

McNeff’s Millenium Club, Inc., which owns the Boat Club, was attempting to sell the bar to Ready on contract, Bewley said, meaning if Ready broke contract, ownership would revert to McNeff.

“[Heppenheimer and McNeff were] totally not in keeping with the agreement,” Bewley said. “[The decision to revoke the license] was pretty much cut-and-dried.”

But VanVynckt also attributed the board’s decision to influence from local businesses and residents who remain opposed to the bar because of its shaky past.

Excise police first busted the 106 N. Hill St. bar in January 2003, citing 213 patrons – the vast majority of whom were Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students – for underage drinking. A second raid in December 2004 found 32 minors in the bar, prompting a series of back-and-forth recommendations from the local and state commissions that eventually forced the Boat Club to close its doors.

Rumors that those doors would finally open Wednesday flew across campus this week, fueled by everything from glimpses of employees entering and exiting the bar to sightings of Miller Light trucks delivering there Tuesday.

“I was real excited to go tonight, and then when I found out it was just a rumor, I was crushed,” senior Kyle Long said Wednesday, echoing the thoughts of many upperclassmen who remember the bar’s earlier days. “As far as memories go … you just can’t beat dollar pitchers with flipcup tables and good company.”

Senior Chris Trotier said he had hoped for the best Wednesday, but knew he couldn’t count on the board’s decision.

“I was definitely upset that it didn’t open tonight, although I can’t say I was completely surprised,” he said. “I mean, as I understand it, they said they would approve it if Mike McNeff wasn’t involved, and he was, so it isn’t too surprising … I wouldn’t be surprised if it opens within the next month, but I think most of the seniors were pretty bummed it didn’t happen tonight.”

The bar could have been ready in time for the inevitable crowd Wednesday night had the board’s decision gone its way, VanVynckt said.

“We really did think that it was going to happen,” she said, glancing around her at the newly-scrubbed dance floor and still-graffitied – with Notre Dame students’ signatures – walls. “I was here until 5:00 in the morning [fixing it up].”

Heppenheimer plans to appeal the county commission’s decision to the state commission, which he must do within 15 days, Bewley said.

The state board has been more sympathetic to Boat Club ownership in recent years, twice asking the county board to reconsider its votes against renewing the bar’s liquor license, then overruling the local board and allowing McNeff to keep the license in escrow to attempt to sell it.

As the license hangs in the balance, the bar’s employees say they are willing to do whatever it takes to relaunch it.

“We’re seeing what we can do and what we have to do,” VanVynckt said, to nods all around. “There’s too much invested here.”

The bar has already taken steps to correct its past mistakes, she said, including hiring police officers to be stationed at all of its doors and implementing stricter standards of checking identification – something Boat Club was famous for letting slide.

“No library cards this time,” she said.

Heppenheimer did not return Observer phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Heather Van Hoegarden contributed to this report.