We will not know for sure until we see the final draft proposal on Aug. 20, but all indications are that the battle to limit the expansion of bars on King Street is only just beginning. Notices for the next Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, which are posted around downtown Charleston’s proposed Entertainment Overlay District, suggest a pending moratorium on new bars except those that do not serve alcohol from 12-6 a.m.
For those not paying attention, the change in semantics within the proposed ordinance — as opposed to what was proposed in the soon-to-be withdrawn version of the ordinance — is what George Lucas might refer to as a “Jedi mind trick.” Rather than allowing new bars to open as long as they close by midnight, the City of Charleston is now going to prohibit all new bars from opening that serve alcohol after 12 a.m. Get it? Considering that, it seems entirely possible that the claims of victory that were uttered by the F+B industry and its allies may have been premature.
The dynamic which seems to be playing out within our city government is that City Council, which has heard from many of their constituents within the food and beverage industry, genuinely wants to find a fair solution to the King Street bar problem. Meanwhile, Chief Greg Mullen, Mayor Joe Riley, and City Planning Director Tim Keane, remain wedded to a legislative fix, which involves stopping bar growth within the sector outright.
Dean Reigel, the only city councilman to vote against the original ordinance, has proposed common-sense alternatives which would address the issue of people exiting the bars all at once. His idea of a soft-closing for bars is much less iron-fisted than either of the city’s proposals, yet there is no indication that a majority of council would support his plan — at least not at this time.
At the same time, Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson has asked the salient question: “What is it exactly that the city is trying to fix?” Is it late-night revelry spilling into downtown neighborhoods at 2 a.m.? Is the number of bar patrons who chose to park in residential areas instead of parking garages? Or is it the drive to get that perfect mix of bars and retail? I don’t know about you, but it seems that it would be hard to agree to an ordinance purporting to fix things when a clear assessment of the problem has not been determined.
Of all the municipal officials mentioned above, only today’s city council members are concerned about getting re-elected; Mayor Riley has obviously announced he is not seeking re-election, and both Keane and Mullen are mayoral appointees. Local officeholders recognize that generally speaking, tourists and late-night revelers don’t dictate the outcome of municipal elections, while irritated long-time residents do. In this instance, when the so-called problem is geographically isolated to one city district, this has to be counterbalanced with the economic benefits which a thriving downtown district brings to the whole city. The more practical political question is this: Will the food and beverage industry and its supporters have the resolve to see this battle through to the end? The political battle over bar closings will only be won when an acceptable ordinance is passed, not when a bad one is defeated.
So far the only proposals have been flip sides of the same coin. Opponents of the city’s first proposal should carefully scrutinize the second and continue to let council know if the same problems exist with the new version.
If there is good news to be had here, it’s this: City Council seems to be listening. If only they were also the folks writing the ordinance.