By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
SHANNON – A Memphis business owner and former owner of a popular bar in Shannon recently tried to reopen the business, but were denied by Shannon aldermen.
P.J. Newton, 55, opened O’Haras, a bar known for catering to the gay community of Northeast Mississippi, in 1994 but then sold it in 1998 and moved to Memphis. The bar changed to Rumors in 1998 but has since closed.
“A lot of people from the area approached me about coming back because they enjoyed me being there and said the business I ran was good for them,” Newton said. “I leased the space in May and had an inspector come by to do a walk-through in the first two days from signing the lease to tell me what I would need to do to bring the building up to code and made improvements inside and out.”
Newton said she had everything ready to open except for her special exception permit, which is needed for any business that serves alcohol, from the city’s board.
The board voted 4-1 at the June 4 Board of Aldermen meeting to deny a special exception for O’Haras based on the city’s standard of review for special exception uses in Shannon’s zoning code.
The code says a special exception “shall not” be granted unless the development will not endanger public health or safety, is reasonably necessary for public health or general welfare, will not injure the value of adjoining property, will be in harmony with the character of the neighborhood, will conform to a comprehensive plan, is appropriately located in respect to utilities and public safety services and will not cause undue traffic congestion.
City Attorney Gary Carnathan said the denial was based on concerns of necessity for general welfare, traffic congestion and public need.
Alderman-at-Large Carl Trice, who voted to deny the exception, was the only board member to return calls for comment. He said he took into consideration some of the residents’ concerns. Currently Shannon has two bars, one of which is a bar and restaurant located close to where O’Haras would be.
At least 23 Shannon residents attended the public hearing required before a special exception request is considered. Trice said the residents brought a petition with about 200 signatures from residents objecting to the bar opening. Newton said about five people from the group spoke in opposition to her bar, none of them mentioning the gay community aspect, but all objecting to having a bar in the area.
Newton said she wanted to open in Shannon because she is familiar with the area and the property owner she is leasing the building from.
“It was something I wanted to do for the gay community here,” she said. “They really have no place to go and while some places may be ‘gay friendly,’ no one really feels comfortable if they want to kiss their partner or dance together.”
Ward 1 Alderman Bryant Thompson said he voted in favor of the special exemption because Newton worked hard to get her business ready.
“I didn’t mind voting because to me, I felt like she put forth a good effort to get the parking lot fixed and they had been doing a lot of work on the building,” he said.
Police Chief Desiree Kirshner said she remembers having some issues with the bar under its previous ownership but nothing outside of what she experiences with other bars.
She said most of the trouble happened when Shannon bars stayed open until 2 a.m. and people from Tupelo would travel to Shannon after the Tupelo bars closed. Now that Shannon bars are required to close at midnight, Kirshner said, most of that trouble has died down.
Eric White, 33, of Tupelo, is a former employee of Rumors and a supporter of Newton. He said he wants to see the bar open so that members of the gay community can go somewhere they know they won’t make others uncomfortable.
“I don’t want to put someone in a situation where they feel uncomfortable in a public setting,” White said. “There are places you can go and people won’t say anything negative but as much as they don’t want to be offended, we don’t want to offend them.”
White said it wouldn’t be a bar only for gay people but a bar where people know they will see same-sex couples and anyone made uncomfortable by that would know before going in the bar.
“I just want my business to be a small sports bar and a lot of my clientele will probably be gay,” Newton said. “Please don’t associate me with previous owners’ problems. This is a new business and I want to operate it within the parameters of the law. We’ll have a nice menu, live entertainment and some small bands and sporting events.”
She doesn’t know what her options are at this point but plans to appeal the denial of her special exception.