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Last Call Will Come Early at The Villager

The East Lake Avenue bar will be required to up security and reduce its hours in the wake of violence and other crime.

The village came out to save , a troubled Watsonville bar, at the Planning Commission meeting Monday evening but in the end it may not be enough.

The bar's owner, patrons, employees and even a man who was stabbed inside the longtime East Lake Avenue establishment spoke in support of The Villager as .

The commission ordered the bar to close earlier: at 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and midnight on the weekends.

"It’s up to them to make it work, so they can stay in business," Planning Commissioner Betty Bobeda.

Owner Mike Ruso said the change will kill the bar. Those lost hours will translate int a $4,000 revenue drop each month, he said.

He had asked to close at 12 a.m. weeknights and 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

But Ruso admits there are issues at the establishment he and Eric Johnston have been running together since 1983.

"We’ve never had this many problems," Ruso said. "Theyr’e going to other bars, drinking, then coming to our bar to cause trouble."

Ruso said he mans the door himself on weekend nights and has had to choke out a couple of unruly patrons.

“I’m totally fed up with these problems that are going on," he said.

The Watsonville Police Department has tallied stabbings, fights, a sexual assault and numerous DUIs involving bar patrons this year, according to Deputy Police Chief Rudy Esclanate. Friday, a man who had been drinking at The Villager later  a half-mile away and was hospitalized.

The bar also has been fined by the state Alcohol and Beverage Control because people were inside drinking when The Villager was closed.

Police officers spend more time dealing with issues from The Villager than any other bar in town, according to data Escalante presented at the meeting. However, calls-for-service at Cilantros, another busy—and problematic—bar in town, were conspicuously absent from the data.

Escalante said he's been trying to work with Ruso and Johnston for more than a year to curtail issues at the bar. Installing security cameras was one enhancement that police requested at the beginning of the year; the cameras were put in three weeks ago and became functional this week.

Meanwhile, police had "three cases of interest" last weekend with connections to the bar, including the DUI crash.

“The problem continues to persist. That’s why we’re here tonight,” Escalante said.

Several bar patrons talked about the comfortable, amiable atmosphere they enjoy at The Villager, whether it's coming in for coffee at 6 a.m. or winding down after work with a cocktail while watching football with friends.

“You’ve got a great group of patrons that come in there. You’ve got some bad eggs that come in there, but that’s happening around town," said John Ruso, Mike's younger brother.

Randy Cervantes, born in Watsonville, .

“I was just there trying to help the bar owner break up the fight. It’s not the bar’s fault,"

He's been going to The Villager for two years and, despite the injury, has not lost his loyalty for the bar.

“I love going to The Villager and playing shuffleboard," Cervantes said. "… It’s a great place and I still go there to this day.”

The bar has taken steps to reduce some issues. They launched a shuttle service in 2009 that picks up and drops off patrons for free on weekends. Last month, the shuttle van happened on . The driver called 911 while patrons using the service ran to the house and rescued the occupants.

Ruso got a round of applause at Monday's meeting when that story was shared.

Some neighbors spoke against The Villager, citing problems with noise and concern that violence will spill over into their neighborhood.

Others voiced support.

Jackie Drake, a patron, college student and care provider who lives a block away said "it is a neighborhood bar. I’ve never seen a bar that cares more for its patrons. The van is evident of that."

Ruso will have two weeks to implement the new hours and other conditions, including hiring security guards. He also can appeal the decision to the City Council and, in three months, review the changes with the Planning Commission.

Steve Bankhead December 13, 2011 at 05:23 PM
Not mentioned in the report about the DUI crash on East Lake was that the Villager owner asked the driver to let him drive him home, was refused, and the customer also refused to turn over his keys. He was only allowed to leave when he claimed he would walk home, then circled around the building to his car. The only thing more the Villager could have done was call the police, and that call itself would have been another mark against the business.
Jennifer Squires December 13, 2011 at 06:49 PM
Steve, you're right. Owing a bar sounds like a rough job, but at some point personal responsibility needs to come into play here. Mike and his staff can—and should only be—expected to do so much.
Russell Rickman December 14, 2011 at 06:09 PM
With the city not having all the facts & not giving other facts relating to some calls it was a rush to judgement. I wonder if the problems from the other bar(which I hear has lost their license for two weeks starting in january). Would this have helped save there Villager, no maybe not but it would have showed that there is a larger problem. Trying to close this business is not going to solve the City's problems.1

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