The inside tale of the curfew/closings deal

As y’all may or may not know, Kathryn Fenner — who is very involved in the community in divers ways — was in the middle of a group of citizens who helped work out the compromise on Columbia’s efforts to get some modicum of control over the less savory facets of its nightlife.

We’ve had discussions here about the proposed youth curfew, and the proposal that bars close at 2 a.m., but as the discussion has progressed, I’ve sort of fallen behind on what was happening. Kathryn has not, and she has sent me all sorts of documents (which I have not found time to read) and great sources (whom I have not found time to interview), and I was feeling all guilty about it, and then it occurred to me to fall back on my default mode, after all those years as an assigning editor: Get somebody else to do it.

And since Kathryn already knew all of this stuff, why not her? Yeah, I know; it’s unconventional, and single-source, and she’s too involved, yadda-yadda. But this is NEW media, people. And I figure, this is just like an op-ed from an involved party, which gives readers deeper understanding of an issue from at least one viewpoint. I will be very glad to consider contributions from other viewpoints, but I make no promises. This is an experiment. We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, here’s Kathryn’s version of events. (FYI, I have NOT edited it, because, well, that would be too much work and defeat the purpose of foisting it off on someone else. So this is her authentic voice, you might say. Yeah, that’s what it is…):

Making Hospitality Districts Hospitable

By Kathryn B. Fenner
Special Correspondent
Less than a year ago, police, patrons and the public at large began to notice an increase in unpleasantness in the hospitality districts, particularly Five Points, but the Vista and the area around Club Dreams across from City Hall also had issues. People were drunker; bands of teenagers too young to even enter a bar were crowding the sidewalks, intimidating people and even brandishing weapons. Bars were severely overcrowded—some holding three times more than their safe occupancy. Street crime was rampant. There were several shootings that appeared to involve minors, some of whom ran into the surrounding residential areas, and severe assaults, including one that resulted in permanent eye damage and reconstructive plastic surgery, on random bystanders that seemed to be some sort of gang initiation.
The police started a discussion to try to solve these problems. By midsummer, a task force of stakeholders was formed including bar owners; representatives from the merchants’, neighborhood and industry associations; the University of South Carolina police and student life heads; law enforcement (Columbia police and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department) and fire marshals; and city staffers, and chaired by Tom Sponseller, head of both the Midlands and state hospitality organizations. Everyone (and his brother or sister) was heard from, including the police chief from Greenville, who reported that the city’s curfew ordinance,
which applies only to the Reedy River area, had been implemented without a hitch—all parents came and got their kids, and there were few incidents because it was implemented after an extensive publicity campaign, a Myrtle Beach police representative, and former Fire Chief Bradley Anderson who did extensive research into practices employed across the country to calm hospitality districts.
The original push was to close all bars at 2 a.m. While bars could not serve liquor after 2 a.m., they could serve beer, wine and the malt beverages—including the notorious sweet, caffeinated alcoholic “energy drinks” like Four Loko (“a six-pack in a can”) that seemed to be major fuel to the drunkenness of younger patrons—until 4 a.m., except for Sundays. They never needed to actually close their doors. The bars countered that the problems were caused by the kids who had no business, literally, in the districts, and proposed a curfew. Additional issues included a toothless loitering law that had been used to stifle civil rights protests, an open container law that required the cops to establish the grain alcohol content of said open container, an over-occupancy penalty that was laughably light and applied only to whoever happened to be on the door that night, and virtually no enforcement of state liquor laws, because of a reduction in SLED agents statewide from 46 to 1.5, the nonparticipation of the Columbia police in the training that would have enabled them to enforce liquor laws, and overworked administrative law judges who perhaps did not appreciate the seriousness of the issues facing denser districts.
Police and fire marshals were often pulling double duty to work the “party nights” and were exhausted. The city courts were doing the best they could with a system of logging violations that relied on a huge book of dot-matrix paper and many handwritten entries. A record number of students at USC were transported to emergency rooms with alcohol poisoning.
A compromise was proposed that drew from the Myrtle Beach statute (bars in other South Carolina cities with dense hospitality districts tended to close at 2 a.m.). Myrtle Beach also had a blanket 2 a.m. closing unless bars obtained a permit to stay open until 4. These bars were required to show proof of liquor liability insurance, to have specified numbers of security personnel, to train staff in safe-serving practices and compliance with applicable laws and, famously, not to have wet T-shirt contests or drinking games. Failure to abide by the rules resulted in swift and certain punishment, and the bars largely policed themselves and one another. The compromise also included a curfew for children 17 and under, at 11 p.m. year round, based on police desires to be able to deal with the bulk of violators before the onslaught of bar patrons began at around 12:30. A special team of law enforcement, fire marshals, code enforcement, zoning and business license staff would be trained in the particulars of hospitality zone issues. Finally, a quality public relations campaign would be implemented regarding the curfew, sensible alcohol consumption and good personal safety practices. Additional, “optional” recommendations included a tighter open container law and stiffer penalties for over-occupancy.
The compromise package was unanimously approved by the task force and presented to City Council for approval. At this writing, the bifurcated closing ordinance has been enacted, the hospitality enforcement team is being formed and the curfew has received the first of two required readings. City Attorney Ken Gaines has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the curfew ordinance, and after City Council waived its attorney-client confidentiality rights, he opined that a federal court decision in Dallas required that certain findings of harm caused to or by juveniles be made, which findings could not be made by the Columbia police
because the data had not been collected. The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened a lawsuit if a curfew is enacted, although it has not sued Greenville.

17 thoughts on “The inside tale of the curfew/closings deal

  1. Mark Stewart

    So do these rules not apply outside of whatever has been defined as a “hospitality” district?

  2. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    The curfew, at this time, would be city-wide, although the critical need is in the “hospitality districts.” Apparently the city attorney believes citywide is more defensible, and several neighborhoods on the Northside came out in favor of citywide, at least early on.

    The bar closing/permits would apply citywide–we don’t want to push the problem elsewhere, for one thing. Of course, the cops can’t be everywhere, so random “corner taverns” might be more likely to “get away” with scofflaw behavior, until someone complains.

    The hospitality enforcement team would concentrate its efforts in the denser hospitality areas: Five Points, the Vista and Main Street. I suspect if another area became a hot spot, the team could be deployed there.

    One issue, of course, is “what defines a hospitality district?”– total or percentage revenues generated per sq. ft.? Types of businesses? Columbia is challenged in some respects because there is not one district, just as it is challenged because there is no one downtown or retail center.

  3. Hardy Childers

    Thankfully it didn’t pass as the task force wanted. Bars can stay open as long as they want past 2am if they have their bartenders get TIPS certified and bars such as The Whig with occupancy under 100 wont have to get security detail. So basically nothing changes for some of my favorite bars. I would also like to know which bars were holding wet t-shirt contests. I haven’t even heard of one taking place in years. Also which bars serve Four Loko? I have never seen it being served in a bar. I predict Belinda Gergel will have a lot more trouble getting reelected. My friends and I living in her district will not be voting for her. She was really the only person on council who was so gung ho trying to pass this. I’m glad she didn’t get what she wanted in the end.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    The task force recommendation was passed with only one change that I’m aware of: instead of closing at 4 am, permitted bars can stay open as long as state la allows. Did you not read what I wrote?

    As far as wet T-shirt contests go, as I said, this was adapted from the Myrtle Beach ordinance, and I made as few changes as possible. The concept got a ridiculous amount of play in the press, but if I had deleted it, folks would have wondered if we were in favor of such contests.

    I believe Dr. Gergel is very satisfied with the outcome so far, as is the task force.

  5. tired old man

    To Hardy Childers: I firmly believe your prediction about Belinda Gergel’s political future is dead wrong. I have been at several events that she has attended, as well as a neighborhood meeting with the Columbia Police Department that she initiated.

    She is hard working and well informed because she is making huge efforts to study issues and discuss them with people.

    We need more elected officials who understand the concept of servant leadership.

    Losing her leadership would be a major discredit to this community.

  6. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Agreed, tired old man.

    She works very hard, and her only apparent aim is to do a good job–it’s not like she needs the money or anything.

  7. Mark Stewart

    My views on this have already been aired last fall on this silly topic. A few words come to mind, however: Provincial, patronizing, smokescreen, misdirected and meaningless.

    I do see that there was a real problem; teens that had up to that point kept their activities on summer nights constrained to their “own” areas of town suddenly decided to participate in the Five-Points experience.

    It would be nice to see people address the underlying issue here: Too many kids in this city lack a vision of a future of possibility – and the means to get there. That’s a very hard nut to crack and so it’s natural that most people would just rather pretend the “problem” was something else much more manageable. And that’s got us to this latest saga of feel-goodness.

    Hope everyone enjoys the delusion – cheers!

  8. Brad

    Boo, Mark Stewart! On this…

    This is one of the few issues I disagree with Mark on. As I’ve said before, I’d like Mark to run for something on the UnParty ticket, because he makes a lot of sense. Usually…

  9. Mark Stewart


    Summer is on the way. The kids will come back out, looking for something to do.

    So maybe they won’t be milling around Five Points this summer. Is it any better when the shooting or mayhem takes place at Waffle House or some such place on a different street in town?

    Cracking down on bars IS a feel good solution. It’s political theater signifying nothing. To me, this is just whitewash. I am in no way opposed to reasonably regulating bars (and certainly do not condone any type of drunken behavior by anyone that might hurt someone else or their property), but on this I simply do not see the connection between closing bars earlier (but still 2 am) and how this will keep teens off the streets (who should be home by 11 pm anyway!).

    There is just such a striking disconnect here between the articulated concern (which people seem unable to really confront because it might trample someone’s perceived civil rights – hint: take down the Confederate flag as a step toward casting off this need to tip-toe around these kinds of issues) and restricting some other people’s rights because of adjacency concerns.

    It’s like saying there’s a gang on the block so you can’t come outside and play basketball on the court. Deal with the real problem.

    To me, that means facing up to the repercussions of educational neglect and limited life prospects. I mean, no one’s really surprised that hopelessness fosters a culture of drug use and bonsai behavior, right?

    If Columbia really does have a night life problem – of which I am in no way convinced – then the quality of life enforcement protocol that other cities’ around the country have undertaken with success would seem to be the way to go. That means actually go after the offenders.

    My apologies to Kathryn, but I really just have a strong feeling that this is all about some people just wanting to sweep things under the rug so that they can continue to believe that everything is just fine. It isn’t. And it never will be. So let’s try to work on the real problems that are out there.

  10. Mark Stewart

    And by the way, a threat from the ACLU to file a lawsuit about a curfew ordinance that says that 17 year olds must be off the streets by 11 pm is asinine. Every 17 year old everywhere should be off the streets by 11 pm. We all know that. But if this is too much for some, then why not treat teens like we do pedophiles and say they can’t [congregate, in this case, after 11 pm] within 500 or 1000 feet of [any establishment serving alcohol]?

  11. Doug Ross


    Amen. The curfew can be boiled down to one theme: “Not in my backyard”. Let’s push the thugs and reprobates back to where they came from.

    The issue isn’t where they do what they do, it’s that they have nobody in their homes telling them not to do it.

    It’s a cultural issue.

  12. Scout

    Mark, why can’t we do both – take this step as a safeguard for now, but also begin to try to work on the real issues behind the problem that you mention?

  13. Mark Stewart


    Here are the problems that Kathryn raised which were to be ameliorated by the new package:

    1) Congregating teens in Five Points and around one club on Main St.
    2) Street crime/assaults
    3) Shootings involving minors (on the streets)
    4) Overcrowded bars
    5) Criminals running into the surrounding neighborhoods (i.e. Shandon)
    6) Bad laws on open containers
    7) A record number of USC students going to hospitals with alcohol poisoning
    8) Overworked admin. judges who don’t appreciate the “seriousness” of the problem
    9) Nonparticipation by the Cola PD in liquor law training

    Does closing bars at 2 am help with these issues? As I said, I’m not opposed to regulation where it addresses a specific need. I simply do not see any logical connection here to any of the issues raised as problems that need to be addressed. That’s why I can’t go along with the feel-good party.

  14. Mark Stewart

    Police street crime. Educate students about alcohol poisoning. Enforce the existing laws (and change them where they are toothless such as with loitering, open containers and curfews). Enforce fire marshal concerns about overcrowding in problem establishments. Do things that relate to the actual problems. Do not engage in fantasy wand-waving. But that’s what we got here. We got a provincial, white-washing response that punishes the many in the pursuit of the few.

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