Someone once said that food is the main source of entertainment in Charleston. We finish dinner and then we go see a restaurant. So it’s no surprise that the city’s next mayor will need to show a firm understanding of local nightlife if he or she is going to keep the city running strong.

Four candidates vying to become the next mayor of Charleston took a seat at the table Monday to talk about their plans for the future of Charleston’s food and bev industry. More than 100 business owners and employees came out to hear what the candidates had to say during the first-ever F&B Mayoral Forum held at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. Topics ranged from parking and affordable housing to the regulations put in place to manage downtown’s Late-Night Entertainment Districts.

Although candidates Toby Smith and Maurice Washington were unable to attend, mayoral hopefuls Ginny Deerin, Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, and John Tecklenburg had plenty to say during the two-hour forum.

The first big topics were affordable housing and parking. According to the Charleston Regional Business Journal, the average monthly rent for an apartment downtown is $1,076, which forces many of those employed in the area’s restaurants and bars to live outside the peninsula. With so many F&B employees commuting downtown for work, how does each candidate plan to accommodate the needs of the workforce?

“Affordability is a crisis not just in the city of Charleston but across the country,” said Gregorie. “As a City Council member, there are things that we are already doing to try to increase the stock of affordable housing, such as making sure there is an affordable linkage to most, if not all, of the housing development in the city of Charleston.”

Gregorie said he plans to take the city’s current public housing and transform it into what he calls “choice neighborhoods” that will have much greater density. After asking the audience for a show of hands for all the employees who commute into the peninsula for work and seeing the majority of hands go up, he suggested that the city should cater more to alternate modes of transportation, such as bicycles.

Tecklenburg also spoke in favor of redeveloping housing authority properties, as well as partnering with developers to provide more workforce housing. As far as parking is concerned, he said the number of available spaces will need to be increased and the city should offer employers discounted rates in parking garages.

Tecklenburg, Deerin, and Stavrinakis all suggested the creation of public transit specifically tailored for those working in the food and bev industry. Deerin proposed the creation of a rapid transit line that will run up and down the spine of the city, in addition to a late-night shuttle, and park-and-ride shuttles based around the schedules of restaurant and nightclub employees who may not get off work until long after the current bus system stops running.
Although Gregorie mostly stuck by his work on City Council and the Late-Night Activity Review Committee’s efforts to regulate nightlife in the downtown entertainment districts, he did show a willingness to make adjustments through the committee process.

“To me, now it’s time for the governance component of that committee to make additional recommendations and changes to see if we can come up with a different idea, a better idea,” said Gregorie of the proposed late-night regulations.

The current pilot plan for soft closings requires that bars and restaurants must turn on all lights and stop all music within the establishment at 2 a.m., as well as remove all alcohol from tables. After 2 a.m., no patrons are allowed to enter any bars.
Stavrinakis and Tecklenburg were not so supportive of the new rules that many believe negatively affect downtown businesses.

“You don’t want anything that is going to impact that ability to grow jobs, create jobs, provide jobs to people, the kinds of good-paying jobs so you can take care of yourself and your family,” said Stavrinakis. “So to the degree that regulations become onerous to businesses, that’s where you’ve got to draw the line.”

Stavrinakis added that the city’s moratorium and plan for soft closings at downtown bars just doesn’t make sense from a business perspective.

“Why would you want to keep paying employees to sit there and baby-sit folks and take on potential liability by having people in your establishment,” he said. “I said way back the first time the city did the closings, let restaurants that want to serve food and not serve alcohol, serve food after 2 a.m., so that folks have a place to go and sober up.”

Tecklenburg discussed the issue of soft closings from the perspective of the customer, saying, “If I’m enjoying a late-night outing and want to get a bite to eat, I don’t want all the lights to go on, the music to go off, and then not have any choices if I like the establishment next door a little better. … There’s got to be a more reasonable way to dim the lights and allow people to finish their beverage and have a little variety about what they’re going to choose to eat before they go home. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

For Deerin, the solution lies in establishing better communication between city officials and business owners to solve the problems with the current plan and hopefully create something that’s popular on both sides.

“It sounds like it didn’t work. So get back with the people who know what they’re doing, fix it, and come up with another solution,” she said. “Try that until we get something that’s good for businesses and is working for the safety and all the other issues we are working with.”

Members of the F&B community seemed pleased with the turnout for the forum and voiced an appreciation of having a discussion of the issues that concern them the most.

“It started off as us really wanting to educate our staff at Butcher & Bee and then hearing that a couple of other restaurants were interested in doing the same, so that they understand the choices that they have to make educated voting decisions,” said organizer Randi Weinstein. “BACE League wanted to do something similar, so we decided to join forces and do something solely for the F&B community that has never been done before. There are so many issues, especially in this past year, and we’re such a vital part of this community and a force to be taken seriously.”

While the idea for the forum may have begun as a way to inform the staff at a single restaurant, it grew into something important for employees and owners throughout the city. Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill, wouldn’t reveal which candidate had won his vote, but he did say that the event gave each person who is part of the F&B industry an opportunity to make a personal decision based on the answers of each candidate. And as Election Day nears, the support of the F&B community could prove vital for candidates.

“The F&B industry represents tens of thousands of employees,” said Michael Shemtov, owner of Butcher & Bee. “Not all live downtown or live in the city of Charleston, but many of us do, and between us and the people that we know and can encourage to get out to vote, we represent a significant voting block. We have the ability to influence the outcome of this election in a positive way.”