Neighbors upset with club’s antics

Violence isn’t a stranger to the Sixth Avenue night spot where 22-year-old Willie Solomon lost his life to a gun Halloween night.

In April, Choices Cigar Lounge and Night Club, also known as Club Nxt to some, opened, replacing Thee Mirage Bottle Club Cabaret, which became the city’s first bottle club after the strip club Thee Mirage lost its liquor license. Before that, it was known as the Tin Cup, but no matter its name, it’s a location that has earned a reputation for trouble, according to neighbors.

“That place over the years is something else,” said Woodrow Allen, 50, who lives across from the club on Second Street.

“It was just a matter of time,” added Beth Allen, 42, Woodrow’s wife, referencing Thursday’s shooting.

The club and its parking lot have frequently been the scenes of violence and drugs, neighbors such as the Allens explained.

In September 2010, a woman was stabbed as she left what was then known as the Tin Cup, and that same month, a 19-year-old was arrested and was convicted after a patron was punched and robbed in the alley.

Earlier in 2010, Altoona police encountered a 25-year-old, 19-year-old and a 17-year-old who were on their way to the Tin Cup armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and a Smith & Wesson .357 handgun, according to records. In 2011, police responded to a report of gun shots in the alley next to the club, as officers had before, such as in April 2006 and again in January 2007, when a Maryland man was wounded after a dispute inside the Tin Cup erupted in the parking lot with gunfire, wounding a Maryland man.

In 2009, a spot-check of the club by state police and the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement turned up a half-pound of marijuana and guns, including an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The latest incident, one where police alleged 20-year-old Hugo Baez shot and killed Solomon just inside the club’s entrance after words were exchanged, didn’t come as a surprise, the Allens said.

Apart from the violence, there are other drawbacks to living near the all-night bottle club.

“It’s noisy,” said Cody Spino, 17, who lives across the alley and parking lot on Seventh Avenue and heard the shots Thursday night. Spino, a high school senior, said he has lived there nine years with his mother and two sisters and said there are problems at the club “most of the time.”

“A lot of fights and usually drugs going on,” Spino said, adding the atmosphere in the neighborhood was much better the short time it was closed down earlier this year.

“That place was never supposed to be reopened after it lost its liquor license,” Beth Allen said. In some ways, neighbors said, it was better when the club did have its license and was under the scrutiny of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

“At least it closed at 2 a.m.,” Woodrow Allen said. Now, the party doesn’t stop, he said. “When 2 o’clock comes, all those other bars close, and they come here, and it’s packed.”

“In the old days, we couldn’t wait ’til 2 [a.m.],” Beth Allen said.

“Now, that’s when it gets started,” Woodrow Allen added.

Allen said he has complained to the PLCB recently and was told the club would be looked into, although it’s something Woodrow Allen said he’s been told before. The Allens said the Altoona police will respond if called, but police also seem limited when it comes to issues such as the noise.

“It gets so loud over there with the music, my windows vibrate,” Woodrow Allen said. “I can’t sleep.”

Responding to the club, according to city police, is nearly routine.

“We’re down there every weekend,” said Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt, who said the change in the club’s status from a gentleman’s club with a liquor license to a bottle club has created new challenges for police.

“We’re kind of in new territory from an enforcement standpoint because it’s a bottle shop,” Pratt said.

Lee Slusser, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Community Development, said unless there is exotic dancing at the club, there’s not much the city can do to oversee the bottle shop.

“If they do [strip], then they fall under our sexually oriented business ordinance,” Slusser said. “Even then, I’m not sure there would be anything in [the ordinance] that would help.”

Neighbor Bob Kelly, 65, said the club’s presence isn’t a nuisance to him, but the fact the club doesn’t have a liquor license is the biggest problem he has with the night spot.

“That place should be closed completely down,” said Kelly, adding it isn’t that he likes the idea of it closing or wants to see the club go.

“They don’t have a liquor license,” Kelly said.

This past spring, after losing a court battle to retain a liquor license, building owner Gary McLoota opened Thee Mirage Bottle Club Cabaret. Food was added, and after paying a $15 fee to get in, patrons could drink draft beer at no extra charge or bring in their own liquor, wine or beer.

“Things have happened in the neighborhood that I had nothing to do with but got blamed for,” McLoota told The Mirror in a May 5 article about Thee Mirage Bottle Club and Cabaret.

Altoona police said McLoota has nothing to do with the current club. It is operated by Jeffrey Keller, who on Friday, shooed media away from the club and its parking area. A call to a number listed for the club was not answered Friday.

“It shouldn’t be here,” said Beth Allen. “If you want something like that, go do your dirty stuff out in the boonies.”