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Is Saint Paul scared of the magic that could be left inside Moonlight Magic Bar?

Inside Moonlight Magic Bar when Wilebski's was upstairs
Inside Moonlight Magic Bar when Wilebski's was upstairs
copyright MDMR 2010

Yesterday, the Sate of Minnesota Court of Appeals decided that Saint Paul can go ahead and demolish an old building in a neighborhood deemed by many as a problem area for the city. Saint Paul, like any city, has policies to ensure properties are appropriately maintained for public safety. Since August of 2012, Saint Paul has been trying to rid the city of Moonlight Magic Bar, a property that, under the previous owners, received many police calls and even one murder outside the building. Moonlight Magic Bar was also once home to Wilebski’s Blues Saloon. Wilebski’s has since moved due to the problems the owners had with the city. The property was purchased by Alex Jerome and Ameena Samatar in July 2012.

City inspection of the property prior to the couple’s purchase revealed many code violations. The property had been vacant since 2011, and remains vacant. City officials would love to demolish the property. Jerome and Samatar want to rehabilitate the property to eventually use for a Somali wedding hall and retail space.

In the city’s zeal to tear down this building with historic significance, are they trampling on the new owners’ rights?

The ruling by the State of Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that the city was not trampling any rights of the owners. The judgment is that the city can resolve to require the repair or removal of the building within thirty days.

Moonlight Magic Bar is in a neighborhood that has a reputation amongst some Saint Paul citizens as being unsafe. Moonlight Magic Bar in recent history has received complaints of serving alcohol to minors, bar fights, and murder outside its doors. There is little doubt that the city would just like to see this building and all of its recent headaches disappear.

But, the city does seem to be rushing this case. While Alex Jerome and Ameena Samatar purchased the property with their own understanding that as owners, they would take their time to bring the property to code, the city had other plans. Thus, it is well documented the number of times the city wanted this couple to take time out of their lives, time that they could have spent working on the property, in order to meet with the council and legislative hearing officers to prove they could fix the property or the building would be razed.

This case brings to mind stories of what happened to Frogtown along University Avenue decades earlier. According to most local residents, University Avenue was full of criminal activity. The owners of Mai Village saw an opportunity for affordable property and invested in their business on University Avenue. After this investment, a connected community developed with several other Asian restaurants and businesses investing in the area, building a neighborhood where people from around the city would come and shop.

What if Saint Paul allowed Jerome and Samatar to rehabilitate the property as proper owners, without so much interference? The couple had already spent about $10,000 for construction costs. If they continued their work, and the building was not open to the public, why would it still be considered a nuisance property? After all, Saint Paul allows The Victoria Theater and The Palace Theater to sit vacant for decades with millions of dollars of code violations in each. In the case of The Palace Theater, it sits vacant with no work being initiated to bring it back to code year after year.

If left to restore this property on their own as property owners should be able to expect, Alex Jerome and Ameena Samatar have the potential to build a connected community, growing the possibility of other small business investment in the area.

Yet, Saint Paul continues in its spiral to oppose property ownership and business development at every angle. Saint Paul Companies wanted to tear down and re-develop The Palace Theater property, but the city council at the time said “no.” So, we have a vacant building for decades. Small business owners want to restore a building in a neighborhood that needs investment from local business owners, Saint Paul and its city council says, “no.” So, we have the potential for either another vacant building or an empty lot or some sort of big money development that can turn over the property in days. What business, what property, what individual owner will be next?

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