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Losing Bet 

Will poker venue fold when homeless shelter hits?

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Regulars at South Salt Lake tavern Good Spirits bet new shelter will forever alter the area. - DW HARRIS
  • DW Harris
  • Regulars at South Salt Lake tavern Good Spirits bet new shelter will forever alter the area.

Bellied up around an oval table on a Monday evening, 10 Texas Hold 'em players are an island of activity in an otherwise quiet South Salt Lake bar.

The game is quick, the players adept, the stakes low, the comfort level up to the ceiling beams, the banter jocular, the vibes communal, the cast of characters hodgepodge and the chips are falling where they may.

One guy is served his second stein while another jokes that the hand is his for the taking so long as there's a "nine in the flop." There is, and the no-limit game carries on.

Elsewhere in the establishment, three barflies down a shot each and leave just as quickly. Another trio is playing pool across the way. Otherwise dead, the tavern this early evening—and all evenings, turns out—supports a lively poker game.

The bar, Good Spirits, sits at the intersection of 3300 S. and 1000 West, and on the type-of-bar continuum, it registers on the divey side. The building also sits across the street from a grassy lot where a new homeless shelter is slated to be built and operating within the next two years.

Last spring, when Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams invited the public to weigh in on which potential site in the county was best suited for a homeless shelter, a few residents mentioned, off-hand, that a bar in the vicinity might pose a challenge for displaced individuals who suffer from addiction. But this was one complaint in a sea full of them, none of which delved into how the bar and its community of customers might also be affected.

This watering hole is home to a thriving poker league, comprising players such as Murray resident Bill Green, who embodies the notion of a regular. Because although he abstains from alcohol, he attends the games religiously on a nightly basis.

"We love this venue; it's familiar," he says. "The owner, Vern, is very friendly to the poker league. He adapts for us. He provides us with what we need to have the game, plus he sponsors it. It's a win-win situation. Many of the members of our league support the bar in a big way with alcohol sales, with food sales."

The Vern whom Green alludes to is Vern Peterson, owner for the last decade. In a phone interview with City Weekly, Peterson says he wanted to get into the bar business for some time, and gradually settled on Good Spirits over a few other prospects—a decision he looks back on proudly.

Peterson speaks in a slow, measured cadence, even as he addresses the looming homeless shelter, a proposal that had businesses and homeowners in other communities riled during the selection process. "We don't know what's going to happen," he says dispassionately.

Good Spirits, in Peterson's eyes, is a neighborhood bar, the type where you can order an $8 New York steak; one that caters to hard-working folks looking to relax and enjoy themselves in an easygoing environment among familiar faces. It's a scene the owner and staff have worked to maintain, and they don't intend to change regardless of their prospective neighbors.

"I kept my prices low to where someone could come in and have a good time and not have to spend half their paycheck," he says. "It doesn't have all the bells and whistles and the brass and the walnut. But it has a friendliness to it. It isn't a meat market bar."

Over the years, the bar developed a symbiotic relationship with poker leagues. The establishment puts up prize money, and in return, most players order drinks or food throughout the game. In addition, players often tip the dealer, who is running the game independently. Typically, the top three players get a cut of the cash prize. The pot on this Monday is $100 and the gang aims to play down to the last man or woman standing. "Occasionally we'll quit before then and dole out the prize money," Green explains.

Where Peterson is unfazed, bar-goers are leery. Asked mid-deal about the future homeless shelter, the players spill at once like a dam thats concrete has finally failed. They critique the distance it will take residents of the shelter to walk from it to a Trax station; they mention the proximity to the county jail (upon release, some detainees make Good Spirits their first stop, the group claims); and they point out the need for the homeless population to be close to Salt Lake City services. They also acknowledge that solving the state's homeless crisis is an immense undertaking, and the players applaud the elected officials for making a valiant effort.

Heidi Wandell, a director level executive who "would never be in bars if it wasn't for this poker game," worries that if the new South Salt Lake shelter resembles the scene in downtown's Rio Grande neighborhood, the bar and barren parking lot will attract the same drug-peddling loiterers who have been accused of blending in with the homeless population.

The city/county/state plan is to help the homeless and transform the street around the downtown Road Home shelter, where rampant, conspicuous drug dealing and use has resulted in tragedy and degradation in the form of frequent overdoses, violence, theft and littering. For community leaders, messaging has been an uphill struggle and convincing the public that the new shelters won't resemble the old is still met with skepticism. The plan is to implement aggressive treatment, transition people into homes and address the root causes that force people onto the streets in the first place. The South Salt Lake shelter, which is expected to house the working men population, will be one of three shelters that break up the cluster that is currently downtown. The scattered-site model is, by design, supposed to alleviate the concerns caused by milling crowds.

Regardless, the poker players anticipate an enormous impact on the bar.

From the patrons' perspective, the image of Rio Grande eclipses the promise that these centers will be different. "It's a whole 'nother layer of security," Wandell says. "I usually park away from everybody. That's where you're going to want to do your drugs. The security will have to triple."

Green speculates the end of the venue as a poker haunt and, perhaps, as a viable business altogether.

But owner Peterson isn't ready to roll over or throw his hands up.

"If I have to, I'll hire a security officer to walk around the grounds and to make sure the homeless aren't camping out there and bothering the patrons. But that's something that I don't know. I'm just guessing at this point," he says. "Whatever is necessary I will do it for the safety and the comfort of the customers and employees."

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