Community concerns surrounding a hookah lounge near downtown Jefferson City have centered mainly on the crowds that congregate outside the business.
Now that city officials have reduced the building's occupancy from 49 to 15 people, including staff, even fewer of those gathered outside the lounge will be able to get in.
Golden Smoke Hookah Lounge opened in May at 633 E. High St. on the corner of High and Lafayette streets. Controversy arose in late summer about disruptions caused by crowds of 100-200 people gathering along the block outside the lounge during early-morning hours.
Open Thursday through Sunday nights, the hookah lounge scaled back its after-hours presence in mid-September after a Sept. 6 inspection determined the building does not meet the requirements of "A-2 Assembly" use, as defined by the International Building Code (IBC), which a business must satisfy to be open between 1:30-4 a.m.
The Sept. 6 inspection also noted three building code violations based on the lounge's existing "Business Group B" use.
City officials had set an Oct. 3 deadline for Golden Smoke's owner, Corey Hykes, to submit a plan to address those violations — specifically the need for a second restroom, a fire barrier separation at the rear door and adjustments to the rear exit.
While Hykes did submit a rendering of where a second restroom would fit, he failed to address all three issues sufficiently, according to an Oct. 6 letter addressed to Hykes from Jefferson City Building Official Larry Burkhardt obtained by the News Tribune through an open records request.
"The primary concern is use of the structure in its current condition. To help alleviate the use, we will require that the occupancy is limited to 15 people or less (includes staff) in the lounge until the violations are addressed," Burkhardt wrote.
The letter characterized Hykes' proposed restroom rearrangement plan as "non-responsive to the requirements" set forth by the city following the September inspection, as it did not specify "how and when" the violations would be corrected.
Burkhardt, in the letter, extended the deadline to submit a complete plan by Oct. 21, with the understanding the business can legally accommodate only 15 people until a second restroom is added, as per IBC plumbing sanitation requirements.
Hykes declined to be interviewed for this article.
In a previous interview, Hykes said he hoped to find a new, larger location to move Golden Smoke Hookah Lounge.
Since Golden Smoke Hookah Lounge began closing at 1:30 a.m. rather than around 3 a.m., as it had been, discussions have also arisen about whether the business may host private parties after hours.
Not long after city officials directed the lounge to close by 1:30 a.m., police officers investigated what first appeared to be a violation of the after-hours ordinance around 1:40 a.m. Sept. 24, as vehicles continued parking along the 600 block of East High Street and people continued to enter the business, according to a Jefferson City Police Department incident report.
The report noted Hykes told officers those inside the lounge had been invited to a private party for the Lincoln University marching band.
"I asked the next three people that exited the business what instrument they played, and all three claimed they didn't play an instrument. Mr. Hykes then changed the story that the private event was for the members of the band and their guests," the investigating officer wrote in the report. "The whole time we were talking, people that appeared to be patrons kept entering and exiting the business. Mr. Hykes referred to them as his guests to the private event."
Hykes has not been charged in Jefferson City's municipal court for the Sept. 24 incident, according to court records.
Associate City Attorney Bryan Wolford, in a meeting with Hykes the following week, explained private parties are not subject to the after-hours requirement so long as no commercial activity occurs during that time, and regulations regarding occupancy, noise levels, etc. continue to be observed.
"Whether it's private or not depends on whether there is money changing hands," Wolford told the News Tribune. "Even if it's a private party, if somebody's paying money to rent the facility for that time, that is a business transaction subject to the after-hours requirements of the city code."
But Interim City Attorney Mark Comley later advised Hykes using the lounge to host private events is inconsistent with the business' license as a retail tobacco shop, according to an Oct. 5 letter obtained by the News Tribune through an open records request.
"As a retail tobacco shop, the lounge is exempt from the prohibition on smoking within an enclosed space as provided in the city's Clean Indoor Air Ordinance. That exemption is lost for organizations that are established to avoid compliance with the ordinance," Comley wrote.
Comley had been on annual leave during the previous weeks.
Jefferson City's ban on smoking in enclosed public places applies to businesses like restaurants, bars and retail stores. Its exception for retail tobacco stores specifies that organizations "established for the purpose of avoiding compliance " with the Clean Indoor Air Ordinance are not exempt.
"Organizing private events for guests during which tobacco products are sold and consumed on the lounge premises is in my estimation a strong signal that it is now being used to evade compliance with the Clean Indoor Air Ordinance," Comley wrote. "In order to avoid an action to enforce the Clean Air Ordinance against the lounge, cease and desist all private events during which tobacco products are smoked on the premises."
Comley later clarified in an interview: "He might have activities after 1:30 on a private basis — in other words, not open to the public; he's entertaining private guests — the issue is whether or not they're authorized to smoke there."