Anyone who’s spent time downtown after 2 a.m. closing time can attest that when you mix humans with alcohol after midnight, they get a little rowdy. Loudmouthed tourists and college kids carom down King Street, swinging from light poles and yelling incoherently. Chemically uninhibited tough guys pick fights with bouncers, cops, and perfect strangers on the City Market. Grown adults pee on the sides of buildings. All of this makes great fodder for the City Paper police blotter, which lists the drunken exploits of the Holy City’s unholy hours.
Is it cause for a clampdown, though?
A new ordinance being considered by Charleston City Council would require bars operating after midnight to hire private security officers to patrol not only inside the bars, but also on all abutting sidewalks and in parking lots that customers use. If the ordinance passes, bar personnel would be responsible for keeping sidewalks clear as customers line up to get in, clearing customers off of the sidewalks within 30 minutes after closing, and keeping all parking areas and abutting sidewalks clear of trash. The ordinance had its first reading at Tuesday night’s council meeting, and it is meeting resistance from some bar owners and council members.
Chris “Boston” DiMattia, owner of the Recovery Room, takes issue with the requirement to patrol outside of his business, for the obvious reason: “That’s the public realm,” he says. And while he understands the city’s safety concerns, he can count on one hand the number of fights he’s seen in five years at his Upper King Street bar. “Indoor security doesn’t help,” DiMattia says. “If the bartender’s paying attention, the bartender’s going to stop issues before they happen. You say, ‘Calm down, relax, we’re all friends here.’ But a security guard in the corner is going to make a guy even more likely to go over and punch someone because he knows security is right there and security is going to break it up right away.”
Then there’s the matter of expense. DiMattia already has a doorman posted at the Rec Room seven nights a week, but on Wednesday through Saturday after midnight, the ordinance would also require owners to hire one dedicated indoor security officer per 100 customers allowed according to occupancy limits — whether the bar is hitting maximum capacity or not. DiMattia estimates that would mean spending an additional $50 to $100 per guard per night.
Police Chief Gregory Mullen, who helped write the ordinance along with the city’s legal department, says the new rules are meant to be proactive instead of reactive. “The reason for it is so that we don’t have a bad event happen [that] is going to give Charleston and the whole area a black eye or make it appear that it’s not safe for tourists and others to come down to the area,” Mullen says. As for the new expenses, Mullen says he hasn’t heard many complaints from bar owners. “The individuals that I’ve talked to, the majority of them already have these people on staff,” Mullen says.
Tim Maahs, owner of Charleston Beer Works, says the new ordinance won’t hurt his business if it passes. He says he would have to hire one additional employee some nights, but that the price would be “minuscule” and would give him “added peace of mind.”
“Our number one priority is the safety of everybody that’s out and about,” Maahs says. “With the increased foot traffic, it is a good idea.”
In addition to the hiring of private security officers, the ordinance would impose a litany of new responsibilities on bar owners and their employees (see sidebar), and it would also create a new Late Night Entertainment Establishment Review Committee to approve or disapprove applications for new bars in the city. The ordinance has the support of Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and several council members, but councilman Aubry Alexander has his reservations. He says the ordinance should be amended to specify that private security guards meet some training or certification standards. “My concern was that having somebody that was not trained in crowd control could maybe escalate a situation,” Alexander says. “To just hire people off the street, probably at minimum wage, to perform those duties, it just seemed unsafe to me.”
Alexander also sees the additional cost to businesses as a problem, and he wonders about the writers’ intent. “It does put a burden on these folks,” he says. “You kind of have to wonder … if that’s the intent of the ordinance, to make it so very expensive to comply that people don’t — or they say, ‘I’ll just go open my establishment in North Charleston or Mt. Pleasant or public service districts where I can operate my business safely and securely without having to hire other people.'”
Mullen says the focus of the ordinance is on setting expectations for new bars so that the owners “understand what the expectations are and what kind of partnership we want to have with them.” And when it comes to closing time, he says he’s not asking bouncers to do the enforcement on the sidewalks, but he does expect some cooperation. “They can’t just push everybody out on the sidewalk and lock their door and then they’re done for the night,” Mullen says. “They need to have their personnel asking people to continue to move up and down the sidewalk.”
In addition to pushing for the new ordinance, the Charleston Police Department has added four new police officers to downtown patrols under the 2013 budget. Mullen says he is seeking a way to hire eight more, possibly drawing from existing hospitality and accommodations taxes.
But for DiMattia, therein lies another problem with the proposed ordinance. Businesses like his already pay accommodations and cabaret taxes (for bars that stay open after midnight) to the city, and those taxes are partly meant to supplement the police budget.
“We’re already paying higher taxes than anyone else. We’re already under scrutiny,” DiMattia says. “You’ve made the bars have to close at 2 a.m. instead of being late-night when those were really profitable hours. You can’t smoke inside, so now people are out on the street smoking. And then we get noise ordinances against us because it’s loud, and, well, people have to go somewhere. It’s just like they pass these ordinances, and then they deal with the consequences afterward by passing another ordinance.”