On Wednesday, the Late Night Activity Review Committee held a series of three listening sessions at the Charleston County Library to collect community input on issues surrounding the King and Market bar scene. The meetings were part of a five phase plan, initiated by Mayor Riley in October 2014. In response to concerns over growing crime in the downtown area, including the April 2014 death of a young man in a brawl on King, the Mayor placed a one-year ban on any new bar licenses, pending further research and discussion.
The committee was tasked with submitting a proposal to the City Council in September, with the mission of keeping Charleston a “Vibrant, Relevant, Forward-Looking City.” The more practical mission is to alleviate tension and balance the interests of bars, other businesses, and the neighborhoods. Mike McCann, Co-Chair of the committee, opened the evening by assuring the crowd of about 100 that “there’s nobody important in this room but you.” Somewhat ironically, he next introduced Councilmember William Gregorie and Deputy Chief of Police Anthony Elgar. Also in attendance were about 40 graduate students from the College’s Master in Public Administration program. The goal of the evening, as McCann put it, was to find ways “to preserve this city, to save it, to make it a little bit better perhaps,” and “to rescue a street that’s been active for 250 years.”
The room was split into small group discussions, each with a volunteer facilitator. Cistern Yard News sat down with a group comprised of a bar owner, an employee of Snyder Rentals, a College student, two shrimpers, an elderly resident, and a musician. True to the committee’s design, the group reflected a wide variety of interests and perspectives. Our first task was to explore opportunities the city would gain from prioritizing the needs of bars and late-night businesses. Increased tax revenue, rising property values, job opportunities, and appeal to younger demographics were among the top answers. Tourism, more stable property values, and increased day traffic were among the benefits we predicted for the city if it prioritized the needs of non-night life businesses.
The group considered additional factors, including parking and economic diversity as a means of insulating the area from downturns. True to the impetus of the meeting, safety was heavily discussed. A significant generational gap arose in our group at this point. The younger members of the group, in their 20s or 30s, perceived King and Market as safe and enjoyable places to hang out alone or in a group, no matter the time. The oldest member of our group, likely in her 70s, was very vocal about how unsafe she felt on King after about 9:00 pm, citing the roving groups of younger people and anonymous “smokers leaning up against the wall.” While the generational differences were difficult to reconcile, they underscored the fact that King Street is treasured by Charleston residents of all ages.
Solutions were brainstormed first in small groups, then voted on in the larger group. The most popular proposal was to implement soft closings. As opposed to kicking everyone out at 2 a.m., bars would be allowed to cut off their alcohol at a certain time and then remain open for an hour or two after. People could eat, sober up, and filter out gradually. Reducing the density of people on the street would ideally alleviate crime and neighborhood complaints. “The big issue is safety,” said John Kenney, owner of The Royal American on Morrison Drive. “They don’t want that huge influx at 2 a.m. The soft close would help stagger that…helping with fights, traffic and drunk driving.”
Soft closings, however, have their drawbacks as well. If the cut-off time were earlier, it could force crowds out into the streets seeking more alcohol and thus push them into more conflict with the non-drinking, dining and tourist crowd. If the cut-off time were kept at 2 a.m. and the closing time was set at 4 a.m., disturbances would just be pushed further into the wee hours of the morning. “A potential unintended consequence,” said Deputy Chief of Police Anthony Elgar, “is that the disruptions of the quality of life in the neighborhoods are happening at later and later times.” As it stands now, officers are usually most active from 2 to 2:30 a.m. After that, everyone has cleared out. With a soft close, the window of time for disturbances and crime would be much longer.
Other popular proposals included improved street lighting, more transportation options, incentivizing late-night businesses that serve food only, capping the number of liquor licenses and having stricter enforcement of existing ordinances. “It involves a multitude of issues,” explained committee Co-chair Steve Palmer, who owns four restaurants on King. “It’s about zoning, what types of businesses are allowed to open.” When asked whether the concerns reflected a larger demographic change in Charleston, Palmer was reluctant to agree but he acknowledged that the issue “used to be specific to Market, now it’s King, in 5 years it will be another street.”