Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen says he has no intention of forcing all bars in the city to close at midnight.
"Absolutely no," Mullen said when asked about the possibility Thursday afternoon. Mullen, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., and city planner Tim Keane proposed a controversial new ordinance at a City Council meeting last week that would require all new bars opened within a new Entertainment District Overlay Zone to close at 12 a.m. instead of the citywide closing time of 2 a.m.
"What we thought was that 12 o' clock was a reasonable time for somebody who wanted to have a restaurant or wanted to have a social gathering spot that served food and alcohol and maybe had live entertainment to a certain time — and would not completely restrict new businesses," Mullen says.
The ordinance passed a first reading 12-1, but it received criticism from Councilmembers Dean Riegel and Kathleen Wilson because city officials had not sought input from bar and restaurant owners before proposing it.
But Mullen says the police department has been "working in the entertainment area" since 2008. Mullen formed a task force called the Responsible Hospitality Group in 2009, seeking input from industry professionals. The group includes hoteliers, members of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, and restaurateurs like Bill Hall of Halls Chophouse and John Keener of Charleston Crab House.
And while some restaurateurs see the ordinance as an existential threat and a step toward a citywide midnight closing time, Mullen says the ordinance was crafted partly in response to concerns from within the F&B community.
"Part of that discussion has been, among the people that are in the food and beverage industry, about the number, the density, where we're hitting a tipping point and there's too many in a small space and the capacity is just not available to handle all of that in a safe and controlled way," Mullen says.
If the ordinance passes, any property in the overlay zone where a business currently stays open 'til 2 a.m. will be grandfathered in as having a "nonconforming use" under existing zoning laws. If the current tenant moves out, the nonconforming use will still be allowed as long as another late-night business moves into the property within three years. While this would not mean an immediate shuttering of downtown late-night bars, it could mean a slow extinction of late-night bars in the affected areas of King, Meeting, and Market streets.
Mullen says part of the current problem he wants to address, particularly on Upper King, is that the sidewalks were designed for the slow trickle of retail customers, not the bustling crowds of a bar district. He says bar patrons frequently spill out into the streets at closing time. "When they all come out at one time, people start bumping into one another because they have been drinking, and someone gets mad because somebody bumped into them or said something to their girlfriend," Mullen says. "And then you have a pushing match that turns into an assault that turns into a death."
As the City Paper pointed out earlier this week, public intoxication arrests are far more common than deadly fistfights in the bar districts. But Mullen says that walking while drunk is a more serious problem than it may seem.
"Even if they're with a friend, many times what we see is, a block after they pass a police officer, they decide that they don't want to cooperate with the friend anymore, so the friend says, 'I've had enough of this,'" Mullen says. "An hour later, we find the person either a victim or they're laying in a gutter or some kind of other medical incident has occurred."
Ultimately, Mullen says the proposed ordinance is not only about public safety, but about public image.
"We may have bad experiences that not only impact the city but also impact the destination itself," Mullen says. "If we get some international visitor who has a problem or we have some shooting down there that takes the lives of three people, that's going to have a dramatic impact on the tourist industry."