Moments after owner Eric Ringsred arrived at the Kozy Bar Tuesday afternoon, he was being solicited as he stood outside.
One bar regular approached, asking if Ringsred had any work to be done.
“Lots,” said Ringsred as he juggled an armful of papers and two dogs on a leash. But the problem is getting the job set up for someone to do, he said, adding apologetically, “I’m not very organized.”
Another man asked Ringsred for $12. Despite the man’s friendy manner and engaging smile, Ringsred resisted. The man was banned from entering the bar. And Ringsred knew that the money would probably go towards the man’s next cocaine fix.
A year or two ago, Ringsred might have simply given the man the money in an effort to help. But Ringsred, an emergency room physician who has owned the Kozy since 2006, has turned a philosophical 180. And it’s at the heart of his decision to get out. To that end, he has listed the business for sale or lease on craigslist.
“Ringsred done with Kozy,” my story in Tuesday’s News Tribune, only scratched the surface. It’s a problem for reporters with our space and time constraints. What do we include in our 20 inches? What do we leave out? Both choices are critical. But one advantage of blogs like this, is we can share aspects of stories that don’t make it in.
And so, here’s more of the story:
Besides being a thorn in the city’s side over the years, Ringsred has a history of buying old historically important but neglected buildings. Among them is the Norshor Theatre. The front of the seedy-looking Kozy Bar in downtown Duluth isn’t architecturally significant, but the 40-unit apartment complex connected behind it, is significant. Dating back to the late 1800s, it was designed by Oliver Traphagen, a reknowned architect.
Ringsred bought it all back in 2006.
One of the most notorious bars in Duluth, police were frequently called to the Kozy for disturbances and other problems. At First Street and Second Avenue East, it’s in the heart of the city’s most troubled and vulnerable population — the homeless, chemically dependent and mentally ill, spiced with chronic offenders.
But Ringsred talked about turning the place around, making it a positive place for the low income, racially-mixed community.
He refused to serve those who came in intoxicated. He banned the worst troublemakers and sent those with minor infractions to church. He started a work-for-rent program, to help people pay their rent at the Kozy Apartments. Staff worked with police. Things improved.
Ringsred’s proud of the safety improvements he made, including putting in a state-of-the-art fire alarm system that was far from cheap.
“We got the building to pass the housing inspection. It never had passed, ever,” said Ringsred who still plans to spruce up the building’s exterior this summer.
But, he says his efforts were thwarted by both the people he was trying to help and local regulations. Providing residents with phone and Internet access enabled some to simply further their drug dealing. His plans to celebrate black heritage with community events in the Kozy’s Paul Robeson ballroom were blocked by the city, according to Ringsred. A group who met regularly to do Native American crafts on the Kozy’s rear deck ended, he said, when someone got drunk and created a disturbance.
“You just can’t win,” Ringsred said.
He now believes that the people whose lives are guided 24/7 by alcohol, drugs, gambling or mental health issues shouldn’t be surrounded by it as they are there.
“What worst place can you put them?” he asked.
“People with problems shouldn’t be heaped in a pile like this," he said. “They should be in a family environment.”
On the positive side, Ringsred said:
“There is a family here, and people who care about each other. But unfortunately there’s not enough positive role models. And I wish I could change those dynamics.”