Quality of life: town hall addresses late-night bar hours

Columbia residents, bar owners and employees voiced their concerns about a proposed ordinance that would force all bars in the city to close at 2 a.m. at a town hall meeting on Tuesday morning.

The city council's public safety committee held the public event at city hall, armed with a list of people who had signed up to make their voices heard.

Some people who attended and spoke were owners or employees of local bars, and they felt that such an ordinance would be unfair to the service industry. Others were Columbia residents who live or shop in the Five Points district.

Concerns were rooted in what people saw as a behavior issue particularly with college-aged drinkers. Lynn Bailey, a long-time resident and healthcare economist, asked the committee to "move slowly and carefully" in their decision-making and to consider where blame is being placed for the behavior of late-night drinkers.

"Don't punish businesses who are behaving because some are not," Bailey said.

Bailey also said from an economic standpoint that the rise in student population at USC drives  what is going on, both the good and the bad, in Five Points. 

Unless the city council ... [is] going to persuade President Pastides ... to limit total USC campus enrollment and expansion, then we will continue to have to struggle to find reasonable accommodations for all parties," she said, "because simply closing restaurants and bars at 2 a.m. is not going to solve behavior problems. It will just send it to a different location inside the city limits."

Life has changed

The specifics of such "behavior problems" were brought up by residents like April Lucas, who lives in the University Hill neighborhood tucked in between USC and Five Points.

Lucas says she has lived in the neighborhood for 31 years, "but life has changed since this extended permit system came into place." She described the current ordinance, which does not close bars at 2 a.m. but does typically require them to stop serving liquor at that time, as a "failed experiment." 

"We have to live with vandalism, and I can personally attest to neighbors who have had their doors — their front doors — bashed down, right out of the door frame," Lucas said. "I've been awakened [at] 3:00 in the morning by somebody so drunk they didn't know where they were, they didn't know who they were talking to."

Lucas continued with personal anecdotes: litter, vandalism and people found on porches or in bushes.

"My neighbor across the street, somebody picked up an urn — a cement urn — and took it on the back of their car and crashed it through the roof of the car," Lucas said. "When I say vandalism, I mean serious vandalism, not just somebody drawing a penis ... that happens too."

Lucas also says that the notion that closing bars earlier will push drinking to house parties is not true, citing that her neighbors have stopped partying due to a "landlord responsibility act" passed over a year ago.

"There are a lot of approaches that have to be considered to solve these problems, but there's a very easy fix that will put us a giant step in the right direction," Lucas said, "and that is cutting back these hours."

A third place

Behavior issues described by residents in the Five Points area don't go unrecognized by bar owners, but those owners did attend the town hall to make sure that the city council understood that they were not to blame.

The decision to close bars early would not just effect Five Points bars, but also bars elsewhere including The Whig on Main Street, where Will Green is a co-owner. 

Green said he felt that an ordinance to close bars early "portrays a lack of understanding and respect for the service industry." 

Green also says that his job is one that he, and others who work similar ones, take seriously and that they serve responsibly. When he gets off work, which can sometimes be as late as 5 a.m., he likes to go to Bar None in Five Points and have a couple of beers, and get home before his family wakes up.

"It's not to go get drunk, it's to be in a third place," Green said. "It's to have something besides just the tunnel of work-home-work-home."

The elephant in the room

Green claimed that the city already has the tools to deal with establishments that are over-serving or breaking local laws. 

He said it would be "reasonable" to scrutinize who keeps their licenses or to require kitchens to serve food as well as drinks, but establishments like his own are not the problem, USC is.

"USC has a drinking problem," Green said, "and that is the elephant in the room here."

A USC graduate, Green acknowledged behavior issues presented by local residents but claimed that if students are a problem, then the university is responsible for solving that problem. He says the problem would be solved if USC started "kicking kids out if you're caught underage ... start taking away scholarships if you disturb your neighbors ... if there are serious consequences from USC for their students."

Directly addressing the committee, Green questioned why the council would write laws for the city of Columbia to deal with students at a university. He said that while USC benefits from a "party culture," it does not deal with an in-house problem students' behavior under the influence of alcohol.

"If USC decides to get serious about its students, and handling those folks, you will put a lot of those troubles to bed," Green said.

Green gave the analogy of putting his son in time-out when he misbehaves, rather than putting himself in time-out. 

"The children ... they can be restricted," Green said. "As for adults who are responsible drinkers and bars that are responsible businesses, I don't see what this has to do with us."

We must work together

Representing the university at the town hall was Anna Edwards, Associate Vice President for Student Life.  She was there on behalf of USC in support of the ordinance to close Columbia's bars at 2 a.m. 

Edwards says that the university has worked with Five Points establishments and community leaders to find a solution to late-night drinking behavioral problems.

"One obvious solution is to stop granting special permission to bars who wish to remain open past 2 a.m.," Edwards said, referring to the extended hours ordinance that currently allows bars to request extended serving hours.

Edwards says that several years ago when the university came together with residents, leaders and bar owners to come up with the extended hours permit system, they had established certain requirements for bars to meet should they request the extension. Those expectations included "better training for staff, more responsible business practices, food service, et cetera."

Citing a study by the university that collected data from the AlcoholEdu program that first-year students participated in, Edwards claimed that USC students are "three times more likely to drink in a bar or nightclub than a national average." 

She also claimed that transports of students to the hospital were at their highest rate between 12 and 4 a.m.

"The university continues to educate students, but we need to work together to create a healthier and safer environment for all of those who choose to enjoy our entertainment districts," Edwards says. "We don't operate in a vacuum. We must work together."

Columbia vs. Milwaukee

Sean McManus is a regular at Bar None. 

"I am almost never there before 2 a.m.," he said.

On Thursdays and Fridays, McManus works so late that he eats his dinner at the bar later than the closing hour proposed by city council. 

McManus wondered if those in favor of the ordinance had ever been to Bar None at such late hours. He said if they had, they would have seen that university students are not there. 

He also claimed that his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is actually ranked as one of the "drunkest cities in America," along with Madison, Wisconsin, where his wife lived for some time.

"Both cities have large campuses comparable to USC ... Both of those cities have the same problems and both of those cities' bars close at 2." McManus said. "You will not see a difference."

McManus says he empathizes with people who are upset about the behavior of late-night drinkers he also has had his property vandalized and claimed that someone has urinated on his house, but said again that this happened in a city where bars already closed at 2 a.m.

What McManus called a "culture of drinking" in cities like Milwaukee and Madison is alive and well even with early bar closings. But while he does not see a solution in the proposed ordinance, he wants to help find a solution to behavior issues that he knows exist.

"You don't want to have your home violated. Home is a sacred place. You should feel safe there. You should not have people doing those things," McManus said. "And for that reason, I'm very interested in supporting the city and the community in any efforts that will actually help resolve those problems."

He says that Columbia is not on the level of Milwaukee in terms of deaths due to alcohol or even the amount of people drinking in general.

"You're only starting on this journey," McManus says, "and if what you think is that closing down bars after 2 a.m. is going to make a difference, you are wrong and you are wasting your time."

Quality of life

Tim Conroy, brother of the late South Carolina author Pat Conroy, says that he came to Columbia in 1975 when USC was a "different campus", where the average student lived on campus for all four years. But now many students live in neighborhoods like his own.

Conroy says he does not want to demonize students — he went so far as to say one of the benefits of living at his home in the Rosewood neighborhood is that he has student neighbors who are willing to help out older residents.

Like almost everyone else who spoke, Conroy acknowledged what he's noticed as an issue of binge drinking and underage drinking. He says he hopes that people can work together to solve those problems.

Conroy used to work in Five Points as a bartender. When he got off work, he wanted to sit and unwind with his friends at a different place.

"My feet were tired. I was tired. I wanted to sit with a group of friends and so I went to another establishment who would have one or two drinks," Conroy said. "And that was my quality of life."

Conroy said he was at Bar None when he heard that his brother's cancer was getting worse. The bartenders and the owner all came to him and asked him what was wrong and wanted to show that they cared.

"These are friends. I know how hard they worked to get it right ... If we enforce the law — and [Green] said this best — with consequences, and put some teeth in it, then I think the issues with underage drinking will improve," Conroy said. "Remember we're a city people with diverse views and diverse walks in how we define quality of life."

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