In 2007, Sean Kennedy was punched in the face just outside a bar in Greenville and later died from his injuries.
Kennedy’s death attracted national attention in part because the incident had been labelled a hate crime. The 20-year-old Kennedy was gay, and his attacker reportedly uttered a gay slur at the time of the assault and afterwards. Kennedy’s mother Elke founded a noted gay rights group, Sean’s Last Wish, and she was invited to the White House when President Barack Obama signed the Hate Crime Prevention Act into law. But even though Kennedy’s tragic death shook so many, both in the Upstate and across the nation, it had little effect on Greenville’s night-life scene, in particular its bustling Main Street entertainment district. There was a candlelight vigil, but there was no apparent police crackdown and seemingly no threats from elected officials to curtail the number of bars and restaurants along Main Street or elsewhere in the city or county.
Since Kennedy’s death, the number of new drinking and dining establishments has only increased in Greenville, most notably along Main Street. And despite the high number of bars and restaurants, Main Street Greenville remains a relatively crime-free, family-friendly destination, where the city’s open container laws are lifted every weekend for Friday Night Jazz and every Thursday for Downtown Alive. Both events are attended by a wide swath of Greenville residents — moms, dads, singles, rich, poor, middle class, bikers, vets, music fans, and, yes, semi-pro drunkards.
In April, Johns Island resident Clint Seymour was assaulted in Charleston’s festive Upper King Street Entertainment District, now a part of the recently named Entertainment District Overlay Zone. Eyewitnesses say that Seymour was sucker punched. Like Kennedy, his head hit the concrete, resulting in injuries that later claimed his life. His friends and family grieved. The community lamented the loss of such a young life in a random, tragic act of violence.
A month after Seymour’s death, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., Police Chief Greg Mullen, and city planner Tim Keane introduced an ordinance that would move the closing time for all new bars along King, as well as much of Meeting Street and the Market District, to 12 a.m. The ordinance was introduced on the Friday (May 23) of Memorial Day weekend and voted on the Tuesday (May 27) after. During the City Council meeting Mayor Riley referenced Seymour’s assault, indicating that this tragedy was a driving force behind the new ordinance, and in an interview later with the City Paper‘s Paul Bowers, Chief Mullen mentioned this tragedy — and future ones just like it — as the natural outcome of the area’s present unruliness.
Several of the City Council members I’ve spoken to also brought up this lone act of violence when talking about the new midnight closing time. City Councilman Aubry Alexander, for one, believes Seymour’s death is one of the main reasons this law is being introduced now. He says that for Riley this was the worst thing that could have happened, a horrific accident that blemishes the name of his beloved city.
There’s no mistaking that the face of Upper King has changed in recent years. Yes, there are far more bars and restaurants — businesses that largely revitalized this once dilapidated stretch of road. And yes, things have gotten considerably more festive — and crowded — on the weekends. But the environment on King Street is far from the Bourbon Street tipping point that Chief Mullen and council members speak of. All you have to do is take into account the types of arrests that officers are making.
According to the Charleston Police Department in May 2013 there were 179 arrests in the proposed Entertainment District Overlay Zone, while in May 2014 there were 336. In the intervening year, eight additional officers were assigned to the area and, more often than not, they were arresting people for the non-violent crime of public intoxication. Our very own Paul Bowers, who weekly heads to the police station to sort through the arrest reports for the weekend, notes that many of the arrests are simply of people walking home. While they may be intoxicated, they aren’t causing anyone harm nor are they committing another crime. (See Paul Bowers’ earlier look at crime across the area in question.)
With more aggressive policing the numbers are surely going up. In effect, Chief Mullen has created a self-fulling prophecy: Crime is increasing along King Street because the police are looking to arrest more people along King Street. It’s the same recipe for disaster that the previous late-night ordinance was — the one requiring bars to police the sidewalks and parking lots where their patrons might be. While that law was designed to force bar owners to lend officers a hand — a dubious and legally questionable obligation — last year’s ordinance also created a late-night entertainment district star chamber of sorts that decides whether bars or restaurants can receive or renew their business licenses. The panel was staffed entirely by city employees and features zero representatives from the F&B industry, ostensibly so that one bar owner won’t be deciding the fate of the competition, although there is some question if that is actually the intent.
Ultimately, what we have is not a crime problem, nor necessarily a problem with a misguided and potentially overzealous police force. What we have is a planning problem.
After all, the City of Charleston approved every single business license on Upper King — and every business license in nearby neighborhoods. They granted the parking variances, and they didn’t even think twice about waiting until parking garages were built before doing so. And although the City today may bemoan a lack of retail along Upper King and tout the desire for tech firms to settle in the busy bar district — more on that later — Tim Keane, Joe Riley, and City Council were too busy collecting tax revenue from new bars and restaurants to worry about the street’s diversity problem as Charleston made its way through the Great Recession.
Once again, let’s look at Greenville. In 1994, the City of Greenville embarked on the revitalization of the West End, a blighted and seedy area of Main Street that was several blocks away from the then-emerging North Main bar, restaurant, and business district. The powers that be in that Upstate town transformed an old warehouse into a dining and retail hub and made sure there was plenty of parking, on street and off, but it took nearly a decade for the area to catch fire, developmentally speaking. In fact, the most prosperous business in the West End appeared to be the Army-Navy surplus store that had been in business for years. By 2002, the West End had begun to come to life. Falls Park had been given a makeover and the beautiful Liberty Bridge, which spans Reedy River Falls, was in the planning stages. Moreover, several bars and restaurants had opened, plus several other businesses, from an ice cream shop to a kitchen supply store. Flash forward to 2014 and the West End has now supplanted North Main as the heart of downtown Greenville’s entertainment district. The Liberty Bridge is finished, a minor-league baseball stadium is in operation, mixed-use apartments have sprung up, and the area is filled with restaurants and bars. But what’s perhaps most amazing is that in this hotbed of fundamental Christianity — Greenville is home to Bob Jones University after all — no one has apparently ever raised much of a stink about the bars and restaurants along Main Street. Oddly enough, the area is quite popular among street preachers and the proselytizing packs of Young Lifers looking to pull other teens into the fold.
Back here in Charleston, Joe and the gang didn’t think about the future of King Street. They looked south of Calhoun, they looked at Aquarium Wharf, they looked at building a new cruise ship terminal, they looked at beautifying the Crosstown. During this time, they welcomed new bars, new restaurants, new hotels, and new apartment buildings along Upper King — apparently never taking the steps to make sure the area would be the same type of family-friendly environment as Main Street Greenville. And why not? The last time the city drew up a plan for Upper King — the so-called Upper King Design District — their plans failed, so why not create a playground for college students, young professionals, foodies, and imbibers?
But today, they don’t care about the bars and restaurants that brought Upper King back to life. Instead, they want to woo retail and tech firms, like current King Street resident PeopleMatter. In fact, City Councilman Mike Seekings has gone on record saying that the city crafted the 12 a.m. ordinance because a few tech firms gave them an ultimatum. Metro Charleston, a website started by the Washington-based livability data collecting startup Local America, reports:
“The Entertainment District, with King Street as its spine, would extend from Broad Street on up to the city’s border with North Charleston.
‘This is big,’ Council Member Mike Seekings (8th District), said [recently] when he unveiled the proposal at a meeting of the Radcliffeborough Neighborhood Association. Seekings said the proposal was driven in part by an ultimatum by three large high-tech companies that want to relocate to Upper King Street but are concerned about the boisterous, sometimes rowdy nighttime scene in the district created by inebriated revelers who crowd the numerous bars, pubs, and restaurants.
‘These companies are worth tens of millions of dollars,’ Seekings said. ‘If the ordinance passes, they’ll come. If it doesn’t, they won’t.'”
However, as much as Seekings is willing to do the apparent bidding of a few unnamed tech firms, Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey questions the City’s motivation to bring more tech firms to Upper King. For one, as the head of County Council’s Economic Development Committee, he says no tech firms have approached the county about tax incentives, something most relocating businesses of this type do. Which brings into question, just who are these three tech firms Seekings mentions? At least two of his fellow council members seemed to have no idea what he was talking about.
But there just might be a bigger problem here than high-tech ultimatums. According to Summey, downtown simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a high-tech hub. He also thinks the City is sending mixed messages. Summey asks, “What’s the Digital Corridor: Morrison or King Street?” Touché.
Anyone who lived through the dot-com boom of the late ’90s and early 2000s knows the dangers of IT hype. Buzz begat buzz which begat frenzied stock market frothing and promises of world-changing wishes, even if no one knew exactly what the corporation was selling. And that’s equally true today. Far too many IT companies now offer products or services that seem to be little more than a stream of jargon that only a select few understand. Go to the “About” page for any number of startups and you’ll be faced with impenetrable mysteries that would make even the most hardened Zen-koan-loving Buddhist monk break. For that reason, and many others, these nascent firms often fall face first into their own hype and everyone else is left to wonder what happened, muttering disbelievingly, “But they said they were going to change the world.”
That’s not to say that Charleston isn’t ripe for an IT makeover. I’m a tech lover myself. I read Wired. I’ve played Angry Birds. I watched the second season of Orange is the New Black over the weekend on Netflix. But the idea that Upper King is going to be transformed into a tech hub certainly strikes some folks as strange. After all, why would an IT firm want to move to the city’s restaurant and bar district when other areas may be better suited to a burgeoning tech biz — like say North Charleston or Daniel Island? I reached out to Nate DaPore, the head of PeopleMatter, to find out why his business moved its headquarters to Upper King. At press time, DaPore and I had yet to speak, but I hope we do soon. PeopleMatter is certainly one of the most exciting and important companies to come to Charleston, and I’m sure they have valuable insight into the challenges tech firms may face downtown.
As for speaking with Chief Mullen, a police spokesman was very polite and worked hard to get my request to the chief. I’m much appreciative. But ultimately, Mullen chose not to talk to me because, well, I cuss a lot in my write-ups. He did, however, talk to Paul Bowers, and for that Mullen must be commended.
All of that aside, what’s most troubling here is that no one seems to know exactly what the end game is. Of the City Council members I talked to, no one really seems to support the ordinance as is. Councilman Rodney Williams said he only voted in favor of the bill to get the conversation started and he didn’t ask the mayor or the chief what their final goal was. Williams maintains that under no circumstances did he vote for a moratorium on new bars. In fact, he supports a 2 a.m. closing time. Kathleen Wilson says she doesn’t know what Riley and Mullen’s ultimate intent is, but she is doubtful a solution will be presented that doesn’t include a new 12 a.m. closing time. Like Williams, Wilson says that she only voted in favor of the bill as a “courtesy and show of respect” for both the mayor and Mullen, and that she has yet to get a straight answer about some of the ambiguities in the ordinance regarding who is grandfathered and who isn’t. Aubry Alexander, meanwhile, understands that the City of Charleston wanted to slow growth — and this ordinance certainly does that for the time being — but he doesn’t see any reason why we can’t still have 2 a.m. bar closings for all bars. He also takes issue with the fact that the ordinance would allow new hotel bars to serve until 2 in the morning, giving them an unfair advantage over other businesses.
But Dean Riegel, the one council member who voted against the ordinance, has stared into the crystal ball of city planning and he sees a dark future for the F&B scene — that is, if nothing changes. The 12 a.m. ordinance may one day apply to all bars and restaurants in the entertainment district. “This is a slippery slope,” Riegel says. “We’re starting to become the City of No.”
However, it appears that some on City Council may be changing their minds. The Post and Courier‘s Brian Hicks notes that up to six council members are considering changing their votes. In part, it’s because they realize that the mayor and Mullen may have abused their trust to ramrod through an ordinance that would cripple the F&B business in Charleston.
As it stands now, no new business licenses are being handed out to bars and restaurants that plan to stay open after 12 a.m. The reason: The pending review doctrine, that, in this case, prevents the city from granting licenses that contradict pending laws. So the ordinance is more or less in effect. And right now, there doesn’t seem to be any indication about when the public is going to be able to speak out on this and when the F&B community will be consulted on this matter and if this consultation will be anything more than a behind-the-woodshed mandate.
Of course, there’s no reason to believe that the City of Charleston will actually sit down with the F&B community except for a select handful of owners. After last year’s late-night ordinance they promised to speak with food and bev before acting again, and, well, you know how that turned out.
Editor’s Note: Sean Kennedy was not assaulted in downtown Greenville as previously reported, but at a bar on the outskirts of town.