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A debate over convenience store hours that ended with the store owners and their lawyer storming out of City Council chambers and saying they planned to close their store and sue the City actually resulted in a compromise allowing the store to stay open longer hours. The store, the Food Mart connected with the Marathon gas station at 555 Howard St., may now legally operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. Previously, under its special use permit, the store was required to close at 4 p.m. Saturday and remain closed Sunday.

Like a movie that begins with the ending, then rewinds to unfold the story, the background tells how the City and store owners arrived in Council chambers on Monday night, May 24.  Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the story began when the prior owner, John Peterson, decided he wanted to sell his gas station. Aware that the property would be far more marketable with a convenience store attached, she said, Mr. Peterson applied for and was granted a special use permit that allowed a convenience store on the premises. A gas station is not a special use and may, under the zoning code, operate 24 hours, said Ald. Rainey. But a convenience store requires a special use permit, and the permit for this convenience store restricted its hours of operation to 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

Hafiz Yaqoob and his brother Nasir purchased the store from Mr. Peterson in 2006.  Their attorney, Bernard Citron of Thomson Coburn, LLP, said the brothers were not aware of the hours of operation restrictions, and from the day they bought the station and store until March of this year they operated both the gas station and the convenience store 24/7. In March, however, City Zoning staff “after receiving complaints regarding the operation of the convenience store… investigated and found that the convenience store was being operated outside of the hours allowed by the special use permit.”  The store owners began complying with hours restrictions but formally sought a change in the ordinance to allow 24 hour operation.

Mr. Citron began by appealing to “fairness and equality,” claiming that competitors in the area could legally stay open 24 hours putting his clients at a competitive disadvantage. “There is no rational basis for not allowing a convenience store to be open on Sunday or after 4 pm on Saturday,” he said.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, asked what circumstances had changed in the neighborhood that would warrant a change in the special use hours limitations. In response, Mr. Citron said that nothing had changed, but that his clients had been operating the store 24 hours for more than three years. “The City issued business licenses knowing very well it was operating 24 hours a day,” he said.

“There have been drastic changes in the neighborhood – good and bad,” said Ald. Rainey. “In March there was a shootout at the gas station.” Constituents came down on her demanding that action be taken, she said. The police received 122 calls to the station in one year, she added, reading through some of the reports to highlight a robbery at gunpoint while the victim used the ATM at the convenience store. “Things happen at this station because they can. … I don’t want to close down the station, I just want them to obey the law,” she said.

Nevertheless, Alderman Lionel Jan-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, tried to find room for compromise. Saying that a convenience store that closed a 4 p.m. on Saturday and stayed closed Sunday is not very convenient at all, he tried to find a way to give the store owners added hours while simultaneously addressing the serious crime concerns of the neighbors. Ald. Wilson agreed, but wanted evidence that the problems surrounding the business were improving. “I presume you don’t want to be robbed, and don’t want you customers robbed. But efforts [to change] do not seem to be bearing fruit,” he said.

The owners would not agree to the compromised proposed by Council. “I am hurting,” said co-owner Nasir Yaqood, “I repeat, I am hurting financially. I am behind on my mortgage.” Saying that most of the operations profits came from the convenience store because the profit margin on fuel is so thin, Mr. Yaqood said that unless he could keep the store open until midnight he would have to shut down. Mr. Citron said that in some months the store paid more to the City in gasoline taxes than it made in profit. He accused Ald. Rainey of having made up her mind before the meeting and having refused to meet with him or his clients.

“No one has any right to come up here and try to ‘woof’ us,” said Ald. Jean-Baptiste, decrying the belligerent tone. Ald. Rainey said that she did meet with the owners both at the police station with the police and at the Civic Center with economic development staff.

Aldermen proposed expanding Saturday hours from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and adding 7 to 7 on Sundays. They also proposed allowing the owners to return to Council in three months to determine whether progress had been made with an eye toward allowing additional hours if problems had been solved.

It was not enough. “With all due respect, you are estopped” from preventing the store from staying open 24 hours, said Mr. Citron. “Your compromise does not keep us open. Our compromise would be to stay open until midnight.” He said the store would close and he planned to sue the City as he and his clients left the room.

When they had departed, the Planning and Development Committee, and later City Council, voted to extend operating hours by adding three hours Saturday and 12 hours Sunday. They also agreed to revisit the issue in 90 days. Whether the store will be open in 90 days, and whether a suit has been filed against the City by then, remains to be seen.