Theo Martin used to make his living selling cheap, fortified booze. The small Central District store he inherited from Mama and Daddy Martin, foster parents who adopted him at age 18, earned the largest portion of its profits from "Colt 45, Mad Dog 20/20, Olde English 800," and the like, he says. "I sold malt liquor all day."

In the spring of 2005, anticipating the future as the city proposed new bans on malt liquor and fortified wine in expanded Alcohol Impact Areas, Martin closed the minimart and opened Casuelita's Island Soul, an outpost of the Belltown restaurant Casuelita's Caribbean Cuisine run by his friend and business partner Richard Dwyer.

Martin, 43, applied for a liquor license so he could sell wine and beer with meals. That's when he ran into Winifred Todd, principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary School down the street. Todd launched a shrill war against Martin's application, rallying parents and penning bombastic letters to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which usually won't issue a new license in the face of opposition from a school within 500 feet of an alcohol-selling establishment.

Todd continued to oppose Martin's application even when he promised not to serve alcohol until after 6:00 p.m., drafted a "good-neighbor agreement" with the police, and got a letter of support from the Colman Neighborhood Association.

Now, more than a year later, Martin is getting ready to apply again, this time armed with a stack of supportive letters from the community. His restaurant has become a cumin-scented institution, popular among longtime residents and newbies, many of them white. Martin, a black entrepreneur who has started several successful businesses in the Seattle area, says the markup on a bottle of beer or a glass of wine would help secure his new venture's viability.

Members of the neighborhood association think Todd has mistaken moral righteousness for what's best for the community. The Colman neighborhood, part of Judkins Park in the southeast corner of the Central District, has a history of economic depression, often colored by issues with drugs and alcohol. Meg Olsen, the president of the neighborhood association, stresses that Casuelita's replaced a store that did all the bad things Todd seems to fear. "That store attracted a great deal of street drunks and bad behavior." She says Casuelita's now attracts customers from inside the neighborhood and out, "midrange restaurant-going citizens who are out to enjoy a good meal. They're not getting drunk on the street. If it shuts down, then we're back to square one."

"[Martin] is willing to go to great lengths to accommodate [Todd's] wishes," Olsen adds, "and it didn't make any difference."

James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, says he'd like to get Todd and Martin talking again. "It's sad," he says, "that a business that's trying to improve the quality of life in a neighborhood is being opposed by the school."

Todd declined requests for an interview. Her letter to the liquor board, from March 21, 2005, describes Casuelita's as a "safety risk to the students of Thurgood Marshall and the community at large." If the license were approved, she asserts, many of her 300 pupils "would be passing this 'bar'/restaurant every day and could be exposed to inebriated and unsavory patrons. This is a family-orientated community that wishes to stay this way." A nearby church, Bethany Temple Church of God Pentecostal, echoed her sentiments in a March 19, 2005, letter, suggesting that "little children may pick up bottles that still contain alcohol in them and try to consume them."

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Colman resident Halsey Bell, 38, who watched Todd lead a parent-teacher association meeting last year against Casuelita's, says the principal portrayed herself as a crusader. "She was standing up pontificating. She very much cast herself as 'me saving the children,'" Bell says. "The school has got such larger issues."

Since Todd took over two years ago, test scores have dropped, as have student and teacher evaluations of the school, which teaches boys and girls in separate classrooms.

avaldez@thestranger.com