Walt's Inn is fighting to keep the one draw that makes the Canton dive bar a destination.
After being slapped with a liquor license violation in November for offering karaoke without a live entertainment license, the bar at 3201 O'Donnell St. is preparing to go before the city's liquor and zoning boards to keep its patrons singing.
Although Walt's Inn is known for karaoke, the corner bar has never had a live entertainment provision as part of its liquor license — something a bar must have in order to offer host bands, DJs, and, apparently, unprofessional singers.
Before November, the issue had never been raised in the 25-plus years the bar has been letting its patrons sing along to the sounds of Journey and Bon Jovi.
"I didn’t know I needed a live entertainment license for people to hold a microphone and sing off key,” owner Wilhelmina Watnoski said.
The bar has been in her family since the 1970s, when her father bought it from a family friend.
Stephan Fogleman, Watnoski's attorney who previously served as the liquor board's chairman, said it's likely no one noticed the bar wasn't technically allowed to host karaoke because it was in compliance otherwise.
"They weren’t on our radar, they weren’t on anybody’s radar," Fogleman said of his time as liquor board chairman. "They were good operators during that time."
On top of that, the building's zoning was recently changed from commercial to residential — meaning Watnoski is at risk of losing her bar altogether, not just her karaoke.
Walt's Inn is scheduled to go before the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals Feb. 9 to try to get its zoning switched back to commercial. After that, the bar will head to the Board of Liquor License Commissioners to apply to add live entertainment to its license.* The bar's original hearing before the liquor board was postponed from Dec. 3.
Fogleman said the bar has amassed hundreds of signatures on a petition, as well as letters of support. Walt's Inn has also drafted a tentative memorandum of understanding with the Canton Community Association.
Sean Flanagan, preident of the Canton Community Association, said he recognizes Walt's Inn is in a unique position, and that the community is well aware that the bar has offered karaoke for years. He said he's received between 30 and 40 letters supporting the bar, as well as two letters of concern from nearby neighbors.
The community association still needs to flesh out the specifics of their memorandum of understanding, including the hours karoake will be offered and contact information for managers on site.
"Our expectation is we move forward and finalize that MOU, that we will provide that in support with these conditions,” Flanagan said. "It's our responsibility to be sensitve.“
Watnoski hopes she's allowed to continue to offer karaoke — she's not interested in bringing in live bands or DJs — and she hopes the building is zoned commercially so that she doesn't have to fear losing her business.
"The only thing that I offer is karaoke,” Watnoski said. "That’s what they come for. They take that away, what else do I have?”
*Correction: A previous version of this article listed an incorrect date for Walt's Inn's liquor board hearing. A hearing date has not been set.