Make no mistake, the City of Charleston’s current ordinance preventing any new bar from staying open beyond 12 a.m. will be the death knell for the town’s late-night bar industry. Unfortunately, the ordinance’s opponents just don’t know it yet.
Rather than trying in vain to stop a measure that is sure to pass, bar supporters should be setting their sights on finding a mayoral candidate who will champion the F&B industry and who promises to repeal the 12 a.m. ordinance. To do anything less is a recipe for disaster.
Here’s why it makes sense for opponents of the new ordinance to set their sights on the future: Charleston City Council passed the first reading of the new ordinance by a 12-1 vote (Councilman Dean Riegel was the lone nay vote.). If an ordinance makes it through the first reading with the mayor’s support and near-unanimous support from City Council, it’s the closest thing to a done deal as there is in local politics (In order to become law, a city ordinance must pass three readings.). No amount of Facebook petitions or angry editorials are likely going to get council members to flip their votes. The cows have already left the barn, and they’re not going back.
The mechanizations that led to this new 12 a.m. ordinance did not include a citywide poll that took into account the wishes of bar owners, the food service industry, or the young professionals and college graduates who have made downtown Charleston the vibrant scene it has become. Nor was the ordinance likely driven by the residents of South of Broad or Daniel Island, where the effects of late-night bars are minimized. Instead, it’s a small but vocal minority of residents surrounding Upper King and Meeting who have no doubt made repeated complaints to council members, the mayor, and the police about how unruly bar patrons spill into their neighborhoods after closing time. And that vocal minority has the ear of the current policy makers in the city. If they get their way, the end result will be the transformation of downtown Charleston from a lively nightlife scene to a sleepy retirement community that becomes a ghost town at midnight.
Of course, we have seen this movie before. In 2000, the city imposed a 2 a.m. closing time on bars; up until then bars had been allowed to stay open until 4 a.m. Since then, most people have been fine with the new hours of business. But with the proliferation of new establishments on Upper King Street, some residents felt these restrictions weren’t enough. So in 2012, the city passed a late-night entertainment ordinance that tried to force bars to better manage their patrons by requiring them to police the sidewalks and parking lots. This new ordinance is the next shoe to drop; it essentially caps the number of bars at what we have today. After all, no one is going to want to open a new bar that closes two hours before its competitors.
The current 12 a.m. ordinance should not offer current bar owners any comfort, even though it applies to “new bar owners” only. The new ordinance will mean that every grandfathered bar that closes or loses its license cannot be replaced. While current bar owners might think they are safe and that future competitors have been eliminated by the new law, they have now become part of a highly regulated class of businesses that can only decrease in number. Every bar closes eventually, and in time only bars that close at 12 a.m. will be left.
Since Joe Riley isn’t seeking reelection, he doesn’t have to care about how young voters and those who support the F&B industry might react to this ordinance, but future mayoral candidates should. If there is a candidate who will make the eventual repeal of this ordinance a centerpiece of their campaign, that commitment would offer hope to all the opponents of this ordinance. In fact, this strategy is the only hope for those who want Charleston’s nightlife to remain a vibrant economic engine. The question now is which mayoral candidate will step up and oppose this ordinance.