A native Minneapolitan has been working for months to open a subterranean bar and lounge in Downtown East. He’s encountered many roadblocks in his quest for a liquor license, including opposition from a small but vocal group of residents, who claim it’s not a good fit for their quiet neighborhood, and Ward 3 Councilmember Michael Rainville.

Peter Juasemai wants to establish The Bazemnt, an upscale lounge focused on Afrobeat music, at 501 S. Washington Ave., underneath Crooked Pint, Caribou Coffee, Core Power, and Subway. He’s already outfitted the space with custom couches, a DJ booth, and an elaborate lighting setup on the ceiling.

When The Bazemnt was on the agenda for the Business, Housing and Zoning Committee meeting on March 26, Rainville made a motion to pull the item for discussion, due to neighbors’ concerns. Councilmembers Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5) and Katie Cashman (Ward 7) requested a briefing on The Bazemnt so they’re able to learn more about the business’ plans and make an informed vote. The committee ultimately decided to revisit The Bazemnt at the next meeting on April 16. 

Juasemai told Downtown Voices that he wasn’t aware that he could’ve attended the March 26 committee meeting, during which Rainville called out Juasemai for not being there. Juasemai said he plans to be at the April 16 meeting.

Juasemai hasn’t operated an establishment before, but he has experience promoting and producing musical events in the Twin Cities, including Afrobeat shows at The Pourhouse. That’s how he met Eric Vedasto of The Agora, LLC, who initially planned to open The Bazemnt at 501 S. Washington Ave.

Vedasto signed a lease for the 4,5000-square-foot space and applied for a liquor license. His request was denied by the City in September 2022 because an investigation determined that Vedasto operated an unlicensed nightclub called The Bazemnt for a few months in 2021 in the basement of a St. Paul building. Vedasto then sold the business and transferred the lease to Juasemai.

Juasemai told Downtown Voices that he was unaware of the denial and thought The Bazemnt had already received approval from the City when he took it over.

Juasemai has been trying to open The Bazemnt for a year, and he said he’s experienced “roadblock after roadblock” throughout the licensing process, mostly because of the issue with the previous applicant.

“My hands are tied right now,” Juasemai said. “An empty bar doesn’t do anything for me.”

The Bazemnt is nearly ready to open in the basement space last occupied by a ping-pong bar. Photo by Brianna Kelly

Rainville sent a letter earlier this year to Mill District-area residents informing them of a community meeting that he was hosting about The Bazemnt’s liquor license request. His letter described the business as a “250-person, late-hour nightclub” and laid out three issues up for review during the meeting: a previous liquor license denial for The Bazemnt, unclear ownership of the business, and a “grossly understaffed” police force.

Rainville’s letter indicated neighbors had expressed concerns over the Minneapolis Police Department’s ability to respond to problems that may occur at The Bazemnt.

About 30 residents showed up to the Feb. 21 meeting, and many of them shared their opinions on why they don’t support The Bazemnt. Downtown Voices was in attendance, too. A widely repeated comment by attendees was that residents are not interested in having a late-night business in their “sleepy” neighborhood, which they said is dark by 10 p.m., and The Bazemnt would be better off in the Warehouse District.

Juasemai, who was present at the meeting, pointed out that the Eagle bar next door to The Bazemnt doesn’t close until 2 a.m. on the weekend, and Crooked Pint is also open late.

There seemed to be a lot of confusion stemming from the fact that two different applicants had been using the same DBA (doing business as) in the same space, first Vedasto and now Juasemai.

Despite similarities in their business plans, Juasemai and Vedasto are “different applicants, entirely,” according to Amy Lingo, the City’s manager for licenses and consumer services. She was also present at the Feb. 21 meeting and she tried to clear up the confusion then.

Lingo told Downtown Voices that the first liquor license request for The Bazemnt was denied because of the previous applicant, Vedasto, not because of the business plan. She said a public hearing wasn’t necessary for The Bazemnt, and the Rainville-organized gathering was “completely discretionary.”

From 2015 to 2022, a ping-pong bar called Hop21 operated in the space, with a full bar and the ability to serve alcohol until 2 a.m., lounge-style seating, and six ping pong tables. The only food it served was Heggies Pizza, presumably because there isn’t a commercial kitchen, where more involved items could be prepared.

During the March 26 committee meeting, Lingo explained why staff is recommending conditional approval of an on-sale liquor with Sunday sales and limited entertainment license for The Bazemnt. Lingo told the committee that Juasemai agreed to several operating conditions in the license that address residents’ concerns. It includes stipulations that Vedasto won’t be involved in The Bazemnt and that all employees will wear “professional” uniforms. 

Per the license, The Bazemnt will close at 1 a.m. for the first three months, and if there aren’t any violations related to hours of operation, it could then stay open until 2 a.m.

“I’m pleased to hear that no former applicants will be allowed, but to me, this is a deceptive way to get the past license applicant that was revoked to get it approved this time,” Rainville said during the March 26 committee meeting. “They didn’t even change the name of it, that’s how odd this is.”

Juasemai told Downtown Voices that he loves the name The Bazemnt, so that’s why he kept it. Plus, the business is located in a basement so it makes sense, and a significant amount of money had already been invested in branding.

The Business, Housing and Zoning Committee is scheduled to vote on whether to recommend approval for The Bazemnt on April 16, then it’ll head to the full City Council on April 25.