Jonathan Boncek file photo
This month bars and restaurants in the Late-Night Entertainment Districts of King Street, Market Street, and East Bay Street received a flyer from the Charleston Police Department explaining how they could voluntarily elect to stay open until 3 a.m. The proposal is the result of last February's Late-Night Public Listening Session sponsored by the city. At the session the public met with the Late-Night Activity Review Committee, a group established by the Moratorium Ordinance to share their thoughts on the question, "What would you do to control crowd concentration at closing time?" Out of all the ideas heard, the concept of a 3 a.m. soft closing was the big winner. On Sept. 8, City Council gave final approval for a 90-day pilot program of the 3 a.m. opt-in soft closing. But so far only five bars have asked to be part of the pilot, and only three will actually do it, according to CPD Lt. Heath King.
Boone's Bar will be the first to opt-in to the 3 a.m. closure beginning this Friday, with Smoke BBQ following next week. Upper Deck Tavern also plans to try out the pilot. As for the other two venues, King says Trio and Midtown have asked for the option to stay open until 3 a.m., but have no current plans to actually do so.
How come, with so many bars in downtown Charleston, only five opted in? Proof bar owner Craig Nelson thinks the small showing has to do with the pilot's regulations, four rules that must be adhered to after 2 a.m.:
- The lights must be turned to their highest levels
- Music within the establishment must cease
- No patrons shall be allowed to enter or re-enter the establishment after 2 a.m. Only patrons who are inside the business prior to 2 a.m. are permitted to stay inside. No others will be allowed to enter the establishment
- All alcohol, beer, wine, etc. shall be removed from all tables and patron areas within the establishment and there should be no consumption or possession of alcohol, beer, wine, etc. by any patron of the establishment after 2 a.m.
"Why would you stick around to eat for another hour if there’s no music and lights are up? Who is going to do this?" says Nelson. The bartender says that when the 3 a.m. soft closure idea came up at the Late-Night Public Listening Session, he was all for it. But after seeing the regulations, Nelson says the city is essentially following the laws already on the books — a lights up, music off, fun over scenario.
Instead, Nelson was hoping for a more laid-back approach. One that would allow patrons to relax, finish their cocktails, maybe grab a bite while his staff went about cleaning and shutting the bar down. "I don’t see how it’s going to work if I have to take their drink away. Why can’t you serve someone up until two and let them finish their drink?" Nelson says.
Those are the questions attorney Elliott Smith plans to ask CPD. Spokesperson for BACE League, an activist group created "to promote and cultivate a more inclusive, engaged city government that is in touch with local grass roots culture," Elliot has been involved in the Late-Night Moratorium debate since it began. He says he has a call into CPD to discuss changes to the soft closing regulations. "I'll be asking a lot of the same questions you are," Smith says.
But for Smoke BBQ owner Michael Feldman, there's no reason to hesitate on opting in. Feldman says he sees the 3 a.m. soft closing as a potentially lucrative choice for his new business. "It's an opportunity to get a late night bite without driving to Waffle House," says Feldman. All too familiar with the crush of concentrated crowds on King at 2 a.m., Feldman hopes his patrons will decide to stick around Smoke, sober up, and maybe order some wings. "We're going to post some signage online and through social media to let people know," he says. And though he wishes the city would allow people to come in after 2 a.m., he adds, "It's worth a shot."
For now, CPD's Lt. Heath King says that restaurants or bars can request to be part of the soft closings now through the duration of the 90-day pilot program ending on Dec. 8. Written notice must be sent to CPD seven days prior to an establishment staying open after 2 a.m. "The reason for that is because we have to staff up," says King. "With three bars, we can make a few changes, but if there are 40 that opt in, we need enough staff to handle that."
With only three bars joining the soft closing in the next month, it should be a quiet beat for now.