CHICAGO — What's the point of opening a bar where customers can't drink? For Chris Reed and his friends, the answer is simple: Sober people need to have fun, too.
Reed is a former heroin user who has been clean for three years, and in that time he has found few places in the Chicago area where a young guy like him can go for a drug- and alcohol-free night on the town.
So together with three like-minded pals, he's opening a spot in Crystal Lake, Ill., called The Other Side, that will seem a lot like a corner tavern, complete with pool tables, a stage, even a bar. The only difference is that the stiffest drink you'll be able to order will be a Red Bull.
The opening, tentatively set for mid-February, is cause for celebration for some people in the recovery community, who say there is a shortage of places where sober young people can gather and socialize. But it's also a proud milestone for Reed, 22, who not long ago would have been astounded by the idea of pulling off such an achievement.
"It'll be huge for me," he said. "When I was (abusing drugs), I had no real other goals or ambitions other than to just not get high anymore, because that seemed like such an impossible task. I just wanted a life. I would have thought (opening a club) was out of my realm of ability."
Reed grew up in Algonquin, Ill., and at 14 started to mess around with alcohol and marijuana. That led to harder substances, and by the time he was 19, he had a raging heroin addiction. He overdosed three times, and when his final one put him in the hospital in September 2009, he told his family that he wanted to die.
That turned out to be rock bottom for Reed, and he slowly rebuilt his life to become the owner of a small construction company. He and some of his friends hung out in his warehouse after 12-step meetings, and the crowd soon grew to as many as 30 people.
It was a sign of the pent-up demand for new social life options among people in recovery, yet the light didn't really go on for Reed until March, when he went to a party in Los Angeles put on by a sober events planner.
The events group has been active for three years, said founder Happy Lozano, and gets as many as 1,200 people at some of its parties.
"It's something that's needed in this community," he said. "A lot of people want to go out but don't want to get high anymore, or don't want to go to work hung over the next day."
Reed said attending the event was an inspiring experience.
"I had such a good time," he recalled. "It was one big party, all night long, all sober and so many good people. I came back super-motivated to do the exact same thing out here."
Reed and his friends moved some of the construction gear out of his warehouse and brought in pool and ping-pong tables, a sound system, a stage and a bar where they could serve energy drinks and soda. They started hosting karaoke nights, movie nights and live bands, and by October, a concert by the metal band Red Violent packed the place with 200 people.
That drew the attention of city authorities, who told Reed he needed a zoning variance to keep the events going. So Reed and his partners gathered dozens of letters of support from local business owners and parents of young addicts and alcoholics, then attended a recent Crystal Lake City Council meeting.
They got the variance.
The Other Side, officially a nonprofit venture, will reopen after the partners finish nearly $8,000 in safety improvements, including the addition of a second bathroom, a sprinkler system and new electrical work.
Steve Staley, 27, a former alcohol and heroin abuser from Lake in the Hills, Ill., is one of Reed's partners. He said the club will allow patrons as young as 17, a policy he hopes will steer kids away from the unwholesome activities that consumed his teenage years.
"Growing up, we got in trouble because there was basically nothing to do," he said. "Then, when you hit that 21 range, there is not much to do for fun outside of those kinds of places (serving alcohol), so we figured there should be some sort of alternative."
Another partner, Mike Ledvora, 22, of Crystal Lake, said the club is meant to be a supportive haven.
"It is fine and good for younger people to hang out, but we are all very serious about what our issues are," he said. "(The club) allows us to basically talk and see what similarities we have going on, and see what things we can help each other with."
Dr. Gail Basch, medical director of Rush Addiction Medicine Program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said The Other Side sounded like a valuable community addition.
"A peer support group with positive health goals and a negative attitude toward drug use — along with community and local law support — is ideal," she said.
Dee Lewke, a substance abuse counselor at McHenry County's Centegra Health System, said she knows and thinks highly of those putting The Other Side together, and that she expected it to be a beneficial venue for people in recovery.
Still, she was concerned that a tavernlike atmosphere might be a relapse trigger for some.
"It's mimicking that drinking behavior, and sometimes that's not a safe thing, especially for people new in recovery," she said.
Reed said the parallels with a regular bar will go only so far — "We're not doing energy drink shots," he said — and that the clientele won't solely be people in recovery. Church members and others who simply choose not to drink will also likely attend, he said, as will those interested in the underground music scene.
But people like Matthew Pearson could end up being the biggest beneficiaries.
Pearson, 21, of Lake in the Hills, has been clean just a few months and attended parties at the warehouse before the renovations began. He said it has been a safe place to go after recovery meetings, keeping him away from old haunts and bad influences that could threaten his newfound sobriety.
"The meetings are nice, but when the meeting is done, (it's like) 'Now what do I do?'" he said. "Being able to come here and hang out with your friends is nice. It helped me a lot."