Four months have passed since Charleston City Council placed a yearlong moratorium on late-night establishments in designated parts of the peninsula, all in an effort to curb the massive crime-wave that had erupted along Upper King and the surrounding neighborhoods — never mind the fact that most of the so-called crimes were just drunk people walking home.
And as promised, the city has formed a late-night committee to examine the impact of the moratorium and to come up with a few recommendations about what to do next. (No word on whether Mayor Joe Riley and City Council will actually take those recommendations to heart, but there's always hope.)
On Wed. Feb. 11, the Late-Night Activity Review Committee will host the first of a series of listening sessions to find out what the people think of all of this. The meeting will take place at the downtown library, 68 Calhoun Street., with the chat-fests set for 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 5:30 p.m.
While each person on the 12-member city council selected one individual to appear on the committee, the rest were either hand-picked by the Riley administration or members of city government. Mayor Riley, city planner Tim Keane, and Police Chief Greg Mullen are on the committee — natch. The rest of the committee features lawyers (Frank McCann, David Aylor, Edward Pritchard ), real estate types (Dan Henderson, Patterson Smith, Michael Shuler), restauranteurs (Steve Palmer, David Marconi, Bill Hall), and neighborhood association leaders (Marvetta James, Susan Bass).
Local attorney Elliott A. Smith, a member of the late-night committee and one of the folks behind the pro-nightlife group BACE League of Charleston, believes the listening sessions are a chance for bar goers and supporters to stand up and be counted.
"This is an exciting opportunity for Charleston's burgeoning creative class and young professionals to become more engaged in the vision of Charleston's future," Smith says. The attorney is asking bar supporters to head to the BACE website
, give their names and email addresses, and indicate whether they are downtown residents in the hopes of building what he calls a "voting block."
Smith takes issue with what he sees as the dichotomy put forth by Riley and his gang of anti-late-nighters: How do we balance quality of life with nightlife? "What does quality of life mean?" Smith says. "You've got to get consensus on that. And I think for a lot of people that includes a thriving nightlife scene."
He adds, "This is not just about drinking. This is not just about bars." Smith believes that city residents have to begin to see "bars and the nightlife scene as an integral, inextricably intertwined aspect of the environment."
Smith notes, "Look at the city like an eco-system. This is one crucial aspect of it."
And as anyone who has visited New Orleans' Bourbon Street, Memphis' Beale Street, or Nashville's Broadway knows, Charleston's night-life scene is tame by comparison. For Smith, the moratorium enacted by City Council is simply too heavy handed. "It's sort of like operating with a sledge hammer instead of a scalpel," he says.
But as much as Smith wants bar-fans to speak out, he also wants them to make sure they are registered to vote — and to be ready to vote in November to support pro-nightlife candidates. After all, the driving force behind the moratorium has long been the men and women in peninsular Charleston's neighborhood associations. They have both the mayor and council's ears.
Case in point, a May 2013 email from Riley to neighborhood association presidents in which the mayor spelled out the intentions of the original late-night entertainment ordinance, the one which forced bars and restaurants to act as de facto cops by requiring them to "patrol" the streets and sidewalks:
"On Tues. May, 28, 2013, City Council will consider the second and third reading of an addition to the Entertainment Ordinance. The purpose of this refinement of the exiting ordinance is to require the owners of the establishment to manage their patrons, especially at closing time. That goal is to lessen the impact of the crowds that disperse into the adjacent neighborhoods which has been a concern of residents who live near an entertainment district. This ordinance will protect and ensure the quality of life that we cherish in Charleston...
It is very important that the residents of our city clearly state their support of this ordinance. I strongly urge you and members of your neighborhood attend the council meeting to express your backing and partnership of this refinement."
Of course, what the mayor seems to ignore is the fact that many of the folks who call downtown neighborhoods home are not against today's thriving nightlife scene. They support it. And those are the residents Smith is trying to reach. If he can get them to make their political presence felt by coming to meetings, calling their council members, and pledging to vote for pro-bar candidates, then there's a chance that the moratorium will not be renewed in September. At the moment that seems unlikely.
In part, it's because the nightlifers who live downtown either don't participate in the political process or they feel as if they aren't able to play a role in it. Perhaps it's because of prior obligations or an erroneous belief that their voices aren't meant to be heard. Sadly, they just might feel like the deck is stacked against them.
Truth be told, the entire way that this late-night mess has gone down is unfair — from the city's demands that bars police sidewalks and parking lots to the last-minute way that Mayor Riley introduced last spring's bar ban and the large amounts of pressure he and Chief Mullen put on council members to pass it. Believe you me, this ordinance is not fair.
Not only does the late-night moratorium not affect new hotel bars, several noteworthy areas are not even included
in the late-night-district. Broad Street, home to Blind Tiger (and their killer patio) and Oak Steakhouse, is largely excluded from the ordinance, as is the section of East Bay containing Southend, McCrady's, and Minero. These are already top-dollar F&B-geared properties, and if the late-night ordinance stays in effect, or remains unchanged, these spots will be even more valuable as fewer and fewer late-night bar are able to open across the rest of the peninsula.
In the end, the question is will Mayor Riley and the City of Charleston continue to play favorites — either with neighborhood associations or downtown bars and restaurants — or will they listen to all voices — including those that Elliott Smith hopes to bring to the table?