By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Pending the results of an investigation, the city has suspended a permit that would allow a boutique in downtown Salisbury to sell alcohol.
City Council granted a special use permit Tuesday for alcohol sales at A Little Sumthin’ Sumthin’, a women’s clothing and accessories boutique at 117 W. Innes St.
Owner Debbie Evans told council members she wants to serve beer and wine during poetry readings and live jazz in the boutique’s arts and literary corner.
City staff on Wednesday withheld the permit after learning Evans uses the upstairs of her business as a private club with bands, DJs, dancing and parties with a cover charge.
Invitations to events on the boutique’s Facebook page offer a “full bar.” Several include “bring your own bottle.” Photos show parties and dancing.
Bands and DJs apparently have been performing above the boutique in the Little Sumthin’ Else Jazz Lounge since September.
Evans told the Post on Wednesday she did not plan to use the special use permit to sell or serve alcohol upstairs. She said she gave complete testimony to City Council members and answered their questions honestly.
Members did not ask Evans about current alcohol use at the business, the extent of entertainment or the upstairs. Evans did not offer testimony about those details to City Council or the Salisbury Planning Board, which recommended approval of the special use permit.
Her business has never sold alcohol, Evans told the Post.
“Other people have leased our space, and they have obtained permits that allow alcohol sales and consumption under their name,” she said. “The boutique does not serve or sell alcohol to anyone at any time.”
She described the second story as an extension of the literary corner located at the back of the first floor.
“We don’t have a nightclub,” she said. “We are utilizing all of our retail space.”
Evans said no one from the city had contacted her about any problem or concern. Evans said she abides by all local, state and federal regulations. The boutique’s Facebook page was still public Wednesday night.
If there is a problem, Evans said she will address it.
“We want to make sure we are in compliance with everything we need to be,” she said.
City officials said they plan to talk to Evans today.
Evans does not have a dance hall permit, ABC permit or business license that would allow use as a nightclub, city officials said. The upstairs has not been inspected by the fire marshal or police, they said.
City staff and Mayor Paul Woodson said they had no idea Evans has a lounge above her boutique.
“We were approving the poetry-reading type thing,” Woodson said. “We didn’t know anything about a nightclub upstairs and dancing. The fire marshal would have to look at that.”
Woodson stopped short of saying Evans had misled City Council. Several city staffers researched codes and regulations throughout the day Wednesday and consulted with City Attorney Rivers Lawther, said Interim City Manager Doug Paris.
Joe Morris, director for Community Planning Services, on Wednesday afternoon instructed staff to withhold the permit, saying City Council needed more information from Evans to make a fully informed decision.
Paris said Police Chief Rory Collins agreed.
The permit would not have applied to the second story because Evans didn’t include that information in her sworn testimony before City Council, Paris said. But city staff became concerned about other possible code or law violations at the business.
They must determine what has been occurring at the location and whether it’s legal, he said.
“We always try to give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “Maybe her intentions have changed since the email went out.”
Evans sent an email to the Post Monday announcing “Fridays are grown and sexy” and encouraging people to “enjoy a sophisticated evening of live music and dance in the heart of downtown Salisbury. You are in for a treat when you visit our upper level lounge for live music.”
The Sumthin’ Else band will play two sets every Friday, and DJ Walt “keeps the dance floor hot,” according to the email, which also advertised an open mic night Jan. 14 for people ages 35 and older.
“No, she did not mention any of that,” Zoning Administrator David Phillips said after the City Council meeting.
City Planner Preston Mitchell said Evans had mentioned a desire to use the upstairs when she applied for her business license in 2010 but never submitted any formal plans.
“Her business license is for a boutique,” Mitchell said. “Operating a nightclub would require a business license, and she does not have one.”
Evans asked Salisbury Police to sign a document that would start the process for obtaining an ABC permit, Capt. Melonie Thompson said.
Thompson said she signed the local government opinion Aug. 9 after determining Evans has no criminal record.
Police and fire officials did not inspect the boutique at the time because Evans still needed proper zoning, Thompson said. The opinion is a preliminary document in the ABC permitting process, she said.
A man once asked Thompson to sign a permit for a wedding-type event at the boutique, she said, but the document did not require her signature.
Serving free beer and wine has become popular at upscale boutiques and hair salons, said Omar Qureshi, special agent with the Alcohol Law Enforcement Division of the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
“They can give beer and wine away, as long as they don’t make it mandatory that they buy their services,” he said.
If a business requires a cover charge, however, it can’t provide alcohol without the proper permit, he said. A cover charge is considered a sale price for alcohol if it is provided by the establishment, he said.
Brown-bagging is legal, Qureshi said, and patrons can bring their own beer and wine.
But advertising a “full bar” concerns him, Qureshi said. Any type of cash bar, or alcohol provided with a cover charge, would require a permit, he said.
“What we would normally do is talk to them and help them be in compliance, then follow up with surveillance or an unannounced inspection,” he said.
Enhancing a business by providing alcohol can be dangerous, he said. Proprietors take on a substantial liability when they serve alcohol, including the risk of serving to minors and allowing someone who’s had too much to drink to get behind the wheel, he said.
“She should be careful what she does,” Qureshi said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
By Emily Ford