The owners of an Oak Park convenience store are appealing a September decision by the village to shut down the establishment after a police sting busted one of its employees for selling heroin, but neighbors of the business say the problems at Austin Pantry went much deeper.

Neighbors say the problems at the corner shop, 1 Chicago Ave., had been ongoing for years, but over the course of the last year, it became obvious that drug sales were taking place on a daily basis in and around the corner store.

The co-owners of the business, Azzam “Sam” Mohammad and Maher “Mike” Haw, will make their case before a hearing board at Village Hall, 123 Madison St., at 3 p.m. on Oct. 26, to have the store reopened. While testimony at the hearing will be public, the agenda suggests deliberations by the board of three Oak Park trustees will take place in executive session.

James Bowers, a civil rights attorney, owns a storefront building half a block away from the Austin Pantry where he is working to open an antique store. Bowers says he’s been in the neighborhood for 30 years and worked to get drug dealers off the block.

His building, located at 5940-5942 W. Chicago, also is home to Gone Again Travel & Tours, a travel agency and non-profit owned by Austin resident Crystal Dyer.

Bowers said that over the course of about six months prior to the Aug. 30 police sting that resulted in the arrest of Edgar Lucas, who was charged with 17 felony counts of heroin sales and possession, people were always standing around outside Austin Pantry.

“For a period of a few months it was really obvious what was going on,” he said.

He said he and others have worked hard over the years to clean up the neighborhood and alert police to drug and gang activity, but the Austin Pantry impeded their efforts and put locals’ lives in danger.

Harold Blake, owner of Avanti Elegant Boutique, 5949 W. Chicago Ave., said he’s been doing business on the block for 30 years and seen the business district go through “a lot of changes.”

Blake said over the last few years Austin Pantry began to attract what appeared to be a criminal element and “a lot of people stopped going in there.”

“I haven’t been in there for a couple of years,” he said, adding, “I just didn’t like the atmosphere in there. Sometimes they’d be messing around with the women, you know, patting them on the butt and all that stuff, and I just stopped going in there to tell you the truth.”

He noted that the owners of Austin Pantry had collected signatures in a petition to get the store reopened, but Blake said: “I don’t know how [the owner] got the signatures or who he got them from, but he did not from me.”

Both Bowers and Dyer said they believe the criminal element Austin Pantry attracted also resulted in armed robberies at nearby businesses prior to the closure of the convenience store.

Both Bitoy’s Sweet Treats, 5957 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago, and Metro PCS, 2 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park, were robbed at gunpoint just a few weeks prior to the police sting of Austin Pantry.

“It trickled over here and affected the business over here; it could have affected me too,” Dyer said. “It’s bringing that element onto that corner, and they’re scoping out everything else, and that’s what happened.”

Bowers said he believes that the arrest of Lucas, who police identified as the manager of Austin Pantry, a point disputed by the owners of the establishment, “should be a death sentence” for the business.

“What they did is threaten the lives, as well as the businesses, of everybody in their community by allowing that activity in there,” Bowers said.

Things have been quiet since the village ordered Austin Pantry closed in September, according to one source who sees the corner on a regular basis and agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity over concerns for their safety.

The source echoed comments of others, saying Austin Pantry was “a hangout” and it was obvious drug sales were taking place.

“I was surprised that Oak Park didn’t make a bigger deal of it being a hangout,” the source said. “I would be shocked if Oak Park reverses its decision because to me it seemed like that was their main goal. They didn’t care who was arrested or anything – they wanted that store shut down because they were sick of it.”

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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