On May 28, 2013, the City of Charleston disappeared, gone with the wind like so many antiquated ideas, from the slave trade on which the Holy City was built to the trolleys that once ran on our streets to the all-male Hell Week hell of The Citadel. Thanks to Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., Police Chief Greg Mullen, and the mayoral rubber-stampers on City Council, the City of Charleston was replaced by Charleston the Brand.
Now, Charleston may be a municipality for all intents and purposes. We still have a parks and rec department. We still have firefighters. We still have to pay taxes. But the powers that be have decided that Charleston isn’t for Charlestonians. Charleston is for the tourists who just can’t get enough of Charleston™®©.
You know the place. The place the readers of Condé Nast Traveler voted the best city on earth. The place that serves as the backdrop to the pastel watercolor world of middle-aged Southern chick lit. The place that the Lee Brothers invoke in their cookbooks like the name of a forgotten god.
And to make sure that Charleston the Brand lives on in CVB legend— and that Ed and Edna Fannypack of Findley, Ohio, continue to believe in this fantasy land — Riley and Chief Mullen urged City Council to pass the Late Night Entertainment Establishment Ordinance. When they speak about the ordinance, the pair talk about the need to protect the Charleston brand, to make sure that the Holy City remains the Holy Grail for tourists. And then there’s the ordinance itself, which acknowledges that the brand is perhaps the single most important reason why the Late Night Ordinance is needed.
The question is, why now? For years, Upper King has served as the nightlife hub for Charleston, while the Market has often served as a playground for tourists and, perhaps even worse, people from Hanahan. Over the past decade, if not the past five years, Upper King has blossomed into a much-loved destination for college students, young professionals, and empty nesters. It wasn’t always like this, of course. Upper King was once a lost world, a forbidden zone, a DMZ, but those days are no more. Today Upper King is home to an internet start-up — People Matter — and at least two of Charleston’s most celebrated new restaurants, The Macintosh and The Ordinary. And in case you haven’t noticed it, there’s a rash of new hotel construction around Upper King.
And there’s your answer. Some 1,000-plus new hotel rooms will soon be welcoming Ed and Edna Fannypack to the land north of Calhoun, and Riley, Mullen, and City Council believe that in order for those visitors to have happy, Yelp-raving experiences in Charleston, the riffraff must go. And that means the smokers in front of A.C.’s, the rowdy college kids emptying out of the Silver Dollar at closing time, and the pro bar hoppers who skip from the Cocktail Club to the Belmont to Mercury and then call it a night at the Recovery Room or Butcher & Bee.
Not everyone will admit that this is the goal, but few will deny that the ordinance is designed to make Upper King safer for the forthcoming outbreak of tourists. It’s important to note that the ordinance is a citywide one that affects West Ashley and Daniel Island as well, but everyone from the mayor to the members of City Council know that the real focus here is the newly designated Upper King Street Entertainment District. According to one council member I talked to, William Dudley Gregorie, the City of Charleston would have drafted an ordinance specifically targeting Upper King, but the City was told that wouldn’t fly legally. Of course, no one really expects the Late Night Ordinance to be enforced with any gusto on, let’s say, Daniel Island, although Council member Aubry Alexander speculates that the ordinance may be used to address Avondale’s parking woes.
If the civic sin of selected enforcement wasn’t enough, the Late Night Ordinance also creates a Late Night Establishment Review Committee that will decide which new bars will get to apply for a business license. The members of that Review Committee are all appointed by Mayor Riley, and every single member will be a city employee. There will be no members of the F&B community on the committee. Why? That’s a good question. According to Council member Alexander, the city’s lawyers said it would be unseemly if a bar owner was on a committee that determined whether or not other bars could open in the city. While that makes a certain sense, it acknowledges a rather frightening fact — the Review Committee is not bound to approve an application even though a bar meets all the requirements in the ordinance. Committee members will make their decisions based on terms that perhaps only they know — and that might amount to nothing more than a collection of whims.
To make matters worse, it appears that the Late Night Ordinance will not just determine the fate of new bars, the Review Committee may be able to decide whether an existing bar — even one that meets all requirements — will get to apply for a business license renewal. Call me crazy, but this doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that most City Council members would have readily approved. According to Alexander, the ordinance was sold as a way for the City to help bars get up to code and open for business faster. By putting prospective new business owners in front of the Review Committe, would-be bar owners would get all the information they need about meeting code in one place. While that seems like a novel idea, it strikes us as rather odd. After all, exactly when has an extra layer of bureaucracy made anything more streamlined?
Truth be told, it appears that the Late Night Ordinance was created for one reason and one reason only: to help the City get rid of establishments that tarnish the Charleston brand. One provision in the ordinance is particularly troubling: the requirement that all bars must identify the off-site parking their patrons use. Now, the bar doesn’t have to own this parking area. They don’t have to lease it. Their customers only have to use it. But the bar has to identify where their patrons park, even if it amounts to nothing more than a lucky guess. Why? Under the ordinance, these bars are not only responsible for monitoring these parking areas, they are required to clear them 30 minutes after closing.
Maybe I’m in the wrong here, but to me it doesn’t seem like it should be the bar’s responsibility to patrol — I mean, monitor — property they don’t own. That’s the responsibility of the property owner or, gasp, the police department itself. However, it’s downright sinister to fine a bar for actions that take place not only outside of their establishments, but possibly a block or more away.
When I asked Gregorie what would happen if a bar didn’t clear a parking area, he readily admitted that it would most likely receive a citation. And therein lies the rub: When it comes time for the Late Night Review Committee to decide whether a bar can renew its business license, you can be damn sure the committee will think twice about granting approval to a bar that receives one too many citations. That may be what Riley and Mullen want, but it’s not what’s best for local business or locals themselves.
I don’t know about you, but I work in a city, not a brand, and the Charleston I love is a home to my family, my friends, and my coworkers. It’s not a pristine theme park. And I want it to stay that way.