As y’all may or may not know, Kathryn Fenner — who is very involved in the community in divers ways — was in the middle of a group of citizens who helped work out the compromise on Columbia’s efforts to get some modicum of control over the less savory facets of its nightlife.
We’ve had discussions here about the proposed youth curfew, and the proposal that bars close at 2 a.m., but as the discussion has progressed, I’ve sort of fallen behind on what was happening. Kathryn has not, and she has sent me all sorts of documents (which I have not found time to read) and great sources (whom I have not found time to interview), and I was feeling all guilty about it, and then it occurred to me to fall back on my default mode, after all those years as an assigning editor: Get somebody else to do it.
And since Kathryn already knew all of this stuff, why not her? Yeah, I know; it’s unconventional, and single-source, and she’s too involved, yadda-yadda. But this is NEW media, people. And I figure, this is just like an op-ed from an involved party, which gives readers deeper understanding of an issue from at least one viewpoint. I will be very glad to consider contributions from other viewpoints, but I make no promises. This is an experiment. We’ll see how it goes.
Anyway, here’s Kathryn’s version of events. (FYI, I have NOT edited it, because, well, that would be too much work and defeat the purpose of foisting it off on someone else. So this is her authentic voice, you might say. Yeah, that’s what it is…):
Making Hospitality Districts Hospitable
By Kathryn B. Fenner
Less than a year ago, police, patrons and the public at large began to notice an increase in unpleasantness in the hospitality districts, particularly Five Points, but the Vista and the area around Club Dreams across from City Hall also had issues. People were drunker; bands of teenagers too young to even enter a bar were crowding the sidewalks, intimidating people and even brandishing weapons. Bars were severely overcrowded—some holding three times more than their safe occupancy. Street crime was rampant. There were several shootings that appeared to involve minors, some of whom ran into the surrounding residential areas, and severe assaults, including one that resulted in permanent eye damage and reconstructive plastic surgery, on random bystanders that seemed to be some sort of gang initiation.
The police started a discussion to try to solve these problems. By midsummer, a task force of stakeholders was formed including bar owners; representatives from the merchants’, neighborhood and industry associations; the University of South Carolina police and student life heads; law enforcement (Columbia police and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department) and fire marshals; and city staffers, and chaired by Tom Sponseller, head of both the Midlands and state hospitality organizations. Everyone (and his brother or sister) was heard from, including the police chief from Greenville, who reported that the city’s curfew ordinance,
which applies only to the Reedy River area, had been implemented without a hitch—all parents came and got their kids, and there were few incidents because it was implemented after an extensive publicity campaign, a Myrtle Beach police representative, and former Fire Chief Bradley Anderson who did extensive research into practices employed across the country to calm hospitality districts.
The original push was to close all bars at 2 a.m. While bars could not serve liquor after 2 a.m., they could serve beer, wine and the malt beverages—including the notorious sweet, caffeinated alcoholic “energy drinks” like Four Loko (“a six-pack in a can”) that seemed to be major fuel to the drunkenness of younger patrons—until 4 a.m., except for Sundays. They never needed to actually close their doors. The bars countered that the problems were caused by the kids who had no business, literally, in the districts, and proposed a curfew. Additional issues included a toothless loitering law that had been used to stifle civil rights protests, an open container law that required the cops to establish the grain alcohol content of said open container, an over-occupancy penalty that was laughably light and applied only to whoever happened to be on the door that night, and virtually no enforcement of state liquor laws, because of a reduction in SLED agents statewide from 46 to 1.5, the nonparticipation of the Columbia police in the training that would have enabled them to enforce liquor laws, and overworked administrative law judges who perhaps did not appreciate the seriousness of the issues facing denser districts.
Police and fire marshals were often pulling double duty to work the “party nights” and were exhausted. The city courts were doing the best they could with a system of logging violations that relied on a huge book of dot-matrix paper and many handwritten entries. A record number of students at USC were transported to emergency rooms with alcohol poisoning.
A compromise was proposed that drew from the Myrtle Beach statute (bars in other South Carolina cities with dense hospitality districts tended to close at 2 a.m.). Myrtle Beach also had a blanket 2 a.m. closing unless bars obtained a permit to stay open until 4. These bars were required to show proof of liquor liability insurance, to have specified numbers of security personnel, to train staff in safe-serving practices and compliance with applicable laws and, famously, not to have wet T-shirt contests or drinking games. Failure to abide by the rules resulted in swift and certain punishment, and the bars largely policed themselves and one another. The compromise also included a curfew for children 17 and under, at 11 p.m. year round, based on police desires to be able to deal with the bulk of violators before the onslaught of bar patrons began at around 12:30. A special team of law enforcement, fire marshals, code enforcement, zoning and business license staff would be trained in the particulars of hospitality zone issues. Finally, a quality public relations campaign would be implemented regarding the curfew, sensible alcohol consumption and good personal safety practices. Additional, “optional” recommendations included a tighter open container law and stiffer penalties for over-occupancy.
The compromise package was unanimously approved by the task force and presented to City Council for approval. At this writing, the bifurcated closing ordinance has been enacted, the hospitality enforcement team is being formed and the curfew has received the first of two required readings. City Attorney Ken Gaines has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the curfew ordinance, and after City Council waived its attorney-client confidentiality rights, he opined that a federal court decision in Dallas required that certain findings of harm caused to or by juveniles be made, which findings could not be made by the Columbia police
because the data had not been collected. The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened a lawsuit if a curfew is enacted, although it has not sued Greenville.