AIDS WALK CHAMPS: Club 1226 Owners Christopher Nikolai & Allan Vandervelden
Milwaukee-- Clear sunny skies and bracing Fall temperatures greeted over 2,500 walkers at the 19th Annual AIDS Walk Wisconsin here October 4. In addition to American Idol star Kimberly Locke, kick-off emcee TV anchor Tonya Wood and a host of local politicians, the third annual "Raising the Bar" competition saw last year's second place winners Club 1226 take home this year's trophy with a stunning total of $16,475 raised during the competition with the addition of the $2,500 incentive prize offered to the top two teams by Joseph Pabst. Second place winners were Team Pump who raised over $14,000.
"And that amount didn't count the money we all turned in today as well," Club 1226 co-owner Christopher Nikolai told Quest after the win.
This year's "Raising The Bar" competition total represented nearly one-sixth of the $305,747 raised for the 2008 event, as unofficially reported following this year's Walk. Nikolai and co-owner Allan VanderVelden estimate that of the slightly over $100,000 cumulatively raised since Raising The Bar's inception, the Oshkosh club has counted for about 3 of every ten dollars raised by the contest. The success in Milwaukee follows a tough year and a half for the club owners. Battling the city of Oshkosh, coping with the June flooding that hit Wisconsin, one pesky neighbor who discovered the bar was gay after a TV story pale in comparison to the gay rumor mill that seems to have been unrelenting in its offering up stories of gloom and doom for the future of the business.
Quest news editor Mike Fitzpatrick had spoken with Nikolai and VanderVelden just three days earlier about the challenges they've faced over the last 18 months:
Quest: It's been a year and a half from Hell for you guys, hasn't it? Do you want to talk about what has gone down?
- VanderVelden: What happened was we got issued a code violation. We went and we applied (for) a repair permit. They said "we don't issue repair permits." Then I asked for a building permit and they asked: "for what?" I told them I wanted to start fixing some of these violations that you guys say we need to repair. I had an estimate of about $3500 to repair windows. The city's comment was that it would cost us $38,000 to replace all those windows. I replied that I didn't want to replace the windows, just to repair them. From that point on, Christopher tried to get a building permit. He was denied. We left it sit. Seven months later they actually had the Oshkosh Police Department hand deliver an eviction notice saying that we had thirty days to take our stuff and leave the building.
- We contacted an attorney (James Long of Appleton) who did a follow-up with the city. It got to the point were the city was either going to condemn the building or we had to condemn it. Yet they didn't condemn it. Instead they said we had many code violations and we had only so much time to correct it.
- Now its October 1 and we're still battling. We've hired an engineer to do blue printing on the building. He has been going up to city hall (working out the) different issues on the blue prints. It seems that every time the city says "(then) this needs to be done (as well). We need to correct this. We need to correct that." And we still haven't gotten a building permit.
Quest: You still haven't gotten a building permit in a year and a half later?
- Nikolai & VanderVelden: (in unison) Correct!
Quest: But you've made some repairs, correct?
- Nikolai: I've attempted to make some repairs on the property but I was told by the engineer and the contractor to halt due to the ongoing battle with the city because I could stir up a lot more trouble. So I have stopped and not repaired anything any longer. I did try to clean up the inside of the building however.
Quest: How much money have you sunk into the repairs that you have done already?
- Nikolai: I have no idea, from day one or from when the fight with the city began?
Quest: From when you got the first notices about the code violations?
- Nikolai: I cannot remember how much. We stuck a lot of money in it but I can't remember exactly off the top of my head.
Quest: Are we talking the thousand or the tens of thousands?
- Nikolai: I would say the tens of thousands.
Quest: Then you had to deal with the flood this past June, right?
- Nikolai: Yes, there was flooding in the crawl space under the building. It did not enter the tavern part itself. Larry (an employee) and I pumped out the water with two big pumps. We were able to pump it out and dry it out quickly.
Quest: You had somewhat of a victory with the city this Spring, right?
- Nikolai: Well they can't condemn the property. That was part of the victory. It's just cosmetic issues with the exterior. The part of the building that they thought was structural was actually our siding. It's sagging. That's the part of the property they have problems with.
- VanderVelden: Though hiring an engineer Christopher and I were able to find out what the problem really was. The building is like 125 years old. It's always had a flat roof. Throughout the years there was water run-off without proper drainage. It ran down the side of the building and made the siding sag. It made it look like the building was going to collapse. The building inspector was supposed to come back in but failed to do so, With engineer we found out there's nothing really wrong with the structure. He commented that because of these nine-inch beams and rafters they used many years ago there's no way that it's going to collapse. We remain open. The health department, the fire department-- everybody passes (inspection) on us.
- To us, they are small, minor issues-- a space where a bird could fly in-- little minor things. With the proper building permit we could correct these. But we want to go above and beyond. We want to put on a new siding, a new pitched roof and new windows. But without a building permit we cannot do this. In the future-- hopefully soon-- we'll have it all fixed plus the "above and beyond" stuff done as well.
Quest: On top of all of this you've had to deal with the gay rumor mill.
- VanderVelden: What happened was Channel 26 in Green Bay did a story on our bar: "You Ask, We Investigate." They aired a story that suggested that the city wanted to shut us down because we were a gay bar. We never heard from Channel 26 after that story. The newspaper in Oshkosh did a front page story with a big picture of the bar. The effect of all that free publicity was the rumor mill claimed that the city is shutting us down. Well, we're not shutting down and we don't plan on shutting down. We're in business and here to support the gay community.
Quest: What are you doing to entice folks back into the building?
- VanderVelden: Well doing this Quest story will help turn the rumors around. Hopefully people will come back and support the gay community in Oshkosh and the surrounding area.
- Nikolai: Also when Channel 26 ran that broadcast, (one of) our neighbors found out that it was a gay bar. He then started complaining about noise-- this is after our being here for three years. We went to court. I got the ticket under my name. I went to court, fought it and won. It was dismissed without prejudice. The judge told the district attorney that he didn't want to see it in his court ever again. But we have toned down our music and the volume during our shows-- and some people don't think its loud enough.
- We had a friend of the bar go around and ask all the neighbors for their feedback. The only response we got back was: "can you start the music a little earlier so we can fall asleep to it?" It turns out it was only one neighbor. The bar's been there for 125 years. He's lived across the street since 1973. We've been there for three and a half years. One TV story and all of a sudden the music is an issue.
Quest: And you're in the running to take the AIDS Walk "Raise the Bar" competition again this year?
- Nikolai: I don't know the exact totals but we tried our best!
Quest: Anything else coming up for people to mark their calendars about?
- VanderVelden: We have our Miss 1226 pageant on October 11. And then we're running weekly and weekend specials. Because of the economy and the high fuel prices, Christopher and I decided to knock 50 cents off most of our drink prices. We're doing all this so we can to make people aware we have a lively bar. We also are planning to put a float in the Oshkosh Christmas Parade. We almost did it last year, but didn't have the request in on time. This year we know what to do. We also do a drag show the last weekend of every month and we do an amateur night the second Friday of every month - you can get up tell jokes, sing, dance or do whatever you want to do. And we're always open to suggestions.
Quest: Can you give some examples about how you've given back to the community?
- VanderVelden: We've also gotten involved in the greater community at large. We're active members of Rainbow Over Wisconsin and had a booth at Pride Alive. We also had a float in this year's Milwaukee Pride Parade and took second place. Our aim next year is to take first place.
Quest: These days the bar business is tough going for a lot of owners, gay or straight.
- VanderVelden: People don't know what all we do to keep the bar open as a place for the gay community. Christopher has taken a full-time job at Ripon College. I have also taken a full time job to pay not just to pay our own living expenses, but to make up for when the bar doesn't make enough money to cover the overhead. So many people think "you own a bar, you must be rich!" If people actually could see the size of the light bill or the heating bill, they might understand better. It's the overhead that kills small businesses. Without the support of the gay community, its tough-- really tough.
Quest: You've been in the bar business for a lot longer than the Club 1226 years, correct?
- Nikolai: We started in business back in 1999 with a bar and restaurant in the town of Dale (12 miles west of Appleton). After five and a half years there, we decided to move to Oshkosh to open a gay bar because we thought it was something the community really needed. It's paid off in a lot of ways-- if not always financially. We've met a lot of wonderful people. But we still hear after all these years, "we never knew you were here!" And of course, more recently "you're still here? The city didn't tear you down?"
- Hopefully being on the cover of a magazine and the recognition from winning a statewide competition to help people living with HIV/AIDS will put the rumor mill to rest!