WHITEFISH – Flanagan’s Central Station drew bigger bands and better musicians than Whitefish has ever seen – but the club couldn’t stay on the right side of the local police and the state liquor authorities, and next week it will close its doors after a three-year run.
Whitefish city attorney John Phelps welcomed the club’s demise, calling it “a positive thing for the city that [Jim Flanagan] is going out of business.” Repeated citations for underage drinking and serving after hours were about to cost Flanagan his liquor license, state officials confirmed, and Flanagan decided to get out while he still had the chance. He plans to open a new club in Missoula.
Whether Flanagan’s was a bad actor or whether it simply drew more attention from authorities, however, is in dispute. Assistant Chief Michael Ferda of the Whitefish Police said he and Flanagan had numerous tense discussions, with Flanagan asserting that his bar was being targeted more than the older, more established bars on Central Avenue. “We have a pretty contentious relationship with Jim Flanagan,” Ferda said. “I think Jim Flanagan felt we focused way too much on him.”
Flanagan declined to address that issue directly. But he clearly regrets that he has to shut down. “People don’t seem to want this here,” he said last week.
The police say it’s simply about the alcohol violations – as well as other matters ranging from pot-smoking patrons to too many neon signs in the windows.
Detective Travis Bruyer of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department, coordinator of the Alcohol Enforcement Team (AET), sets up the “compliance checks” every few months where an underage person is sent into a bar or liquor store to try and purchase alcohol with their real ID, which shows that they are under 21. Performed four times a year, the compliance checks can hit as many as 30 establishments in one night. Over the last three years, Bruyer said he has conducted five compliance checks at Flanagan’s. It failed four times. In September, Flanagan’s Central Station received four violations over the span of four days for being open and serving after 2 a.m.
Bruyer recalled doing a “bar check” last winter, where an officer walks through the bar to check IDs at random. Stepping out onto the balcony, Bruyer said, was like “getting punched in the face” with marijuana smoke. Citing three individuals, Bruyer went to inform the manager on duty and found him drunk. “Little things like that wouldn’t necessarily go in a report,” Bruyer said. “Once you get a reputation as that kind of a place, I think it hurts your business in the long run.”
City attorney Phelps said he has threatened to charge Flanagan with misdemeanors for minor violations of city ordinances like having too many neon signs in the windows and posting fliers all over town to announce a big show. He didn’t pursue those violations aggressively, Phelps said, because he thought Flanagan’s Central Station would be going out of business soon anyway.
But the violations that took down Flanagan’s had to do with alcohol – and the huge financial risk associated with possibly losing a liquor license. Late in 2006, the state liquor control division issued a “notice of revocation” to Flanagan informing him that the state intended to revoke his liquor license, according to Shauna Helfert, administrator for the division.
Helfert had six counts of official violations on record for Flanagan’s Central Station. Flanagan appealed the decision, but later agreed to settlement that “they would sell the license prior to October 1,” Helfert said. “Had they not agreed, we would have gone to a hearing.” If Flanagan had chosen to take his case to the appeals hearing, which Helfert described as a kind of “mini-trial,” he would have had the opportunity to make his case for why the license should not be taken away, but would have also continued to risk losing the license entirely – an expensive proposition in the Flathead, where recent “full beverage” liquor licenses have sold for nearly $1 million.
“I don’t know what the outcome would have been at that hearing,” Helfert said, but added, “I don’t know of another establishment that has had this number of violations in the region.”
Flanagan now plans to open a larger capacity music venue in Missoula next year and hopes to continue promoting shows in Whitefish. “I want to stay in this state and do business,” he added. “I love putting on music.”
While Flanagan’s Central Station didn’t turn much of a profit its first two years, “my business is actually doing very well right now,” Flanagan said, explaining that the profit comes from selling drinks, not the cover charged at the door. It would be impossible to do business without a liquor license.
Officials interviewed acknowledged that fighting, drug use, excessive drinking and serving to minors occurs at many bars no matter how heavy the police presence may be, and Flanagan’s was far from being the only one guilty of some of these violations. But most businesses that fail compliance checks, Ferda and Bruyer said, work hard to avoid failing again by improving staff training and making changes to who checks IDs. “I don’t know how hard Jim Flanagan worked to stop the violations,” Ferda said.
Both Flanagan’s Central Station and Coach’s Corner, the bar that previously inhabited the space, had trouble with rowdy patrons throwing things off the balcony, like beer bottles at police officers and ashtrays at car windshields – incidents that did not improve relations with the city. Ferda wondered aloud if temporarily suspending Flanagan’s liquor license and chaining up the doors for a few weeks about a year and a half ago might have underscored the seriousness of the violations. “It was just the totality of everything that was having the police department focus on Flanagan’s,” Ferda said. “We didn’t have it out for Jim Flanagan.”
The last concert booked for Flanagan’s Central Station is The Gourds on Sept. 16. The following weekend, Flanagan said, will be open mic performances by local musicians who have played there over the previous three years. And then the doors – in Whitefish anyway – will close.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.