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Will Charleston snuff out its only cigar bar?

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Will Charleston snuff out its only cigar bar?

Summerville resident Mike Hopper puffs on a cigar while he has a drink inside Club Habana on Meeting Street in downtown Charleston Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012. The retired former Ohio native said the no prohibition against having a drink and a smoke inside was his primary reason why he moved down south. "This place is what brought me to Charleston. I may as well move by north," he said, after hearing the possibility that Club Habana may lose its lease and close. (Tyrone Walker/

Charleston's only legal "cigar bar" is about to lose its lease. Trouble for nicotine fans is, it's in danger of losing its smoking exemption, too.

Club Habana on Meeting Street has been the only bar in the city where smoking is permitted, largely because of its unique position above the Tinder Box tobacco store.

Customers must pass through the well-stocked cigar shop to get to the bar upstairs.

When the city's smoking ban went into place in 2007, their unique partnership received a special exemption from City Council to keep lighting up at the bar legal, largely because of the financial hardship and threat to livelihood that a prohibition would mean.

Since then, both sites have thrived in a co-beneficial manner, with the smoke shop doubling its business from day to night as happy smokers came through on their way to the bar upstairs.

But things started going awry after Club Habana learned the landlord didn't want the lease to continue. Club owner Tom Pompeii is scrambling to both find a new site and get council to let him transfer his smoking "grandfather clause" to another location, something that isn't allowed under the current ordinance.

"We're not looking to open at a second location or expand our business," Pompeii said, adding that the move is needed to preserve the status quo.

He said it would be "in the city's best interest" to allow the switch since up to 17 jobs between the two businesses would be saved, and downtown would still be able to offer a destination site for tourists and locals to enjoy smoking, heavy spirits and food.

Tinder Box owner Tom Chatburn, concurred. The move "is not by our choosing," he said.

In the mid-2000s Charleston joined the wave of South Carolina cities going smokeless, largely on what was promoted as a health issue. The city's ordinance prohibited smoking in nearly any workplace with at least one employee. Tobacco shops, however, were exempted, and hotels were allowed to designate up to 25 percent of their rooms as "smoking rooms."

While Club Habana was exempted for its unique status, some council members opposed the move, saying providing the bar an exemption created an unfair monopoly for one business.

That "monopoly" question was one of the issues raised last week by current City Councilman Marvin Wagner, who said losing a lease is one of the risks of operating a business. He also pointed out that the current ordinance says the cigar bar can operate as long as it "has not expanded its size or changed its location."

Other council members seemed more lenient. "It's no fault of his own, losing his lease," Councilman James Lewis said.

Pompeii, meanwhile, said his operation shouldn't be viewed as a monopoly since other tobacco shops which allow smoking are attracting their customers by getting licenses to sell and serve beer and wine, not the hard-liquor option that he serves. He called them "pseudo bars."

The co-owner of a competing tobacco store, Charleston Tobacco & Wine on East Bay Street, said he didn't want to take a side in the current debate or to fault Club Habana and the Tinder Box for wanting to keep their exemption. The bigger issue, said businessman David Donnell, is that store owners -- not the government -- should have been allowed to retain the power of deciding whether to go smokeless by choice.

Pompeii is looking at moving to a site relatively close to his current location on Meeting Street, on Market Street across from Charleston Place. City Council will revisit the issue later this month.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

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