Raising the bar on downtown safety: City, business owners discuss dangers

Lawrence residents David Terrell, right, and Ricky Brown watch the Home Run Derby of this year's Major League Baseball All-Star Game at the Eighth Street Taproom, 801 N.H., in downtown Lawrence. Lawrence bar owners met with city staffers July 11, 2007, about creating new regulations for bars and 'entertainment venues' to help make downtown more safe.

This time it wasn’t the bartenders giving the friendly advice. Instead they were given it from City Hall: get ready to talk about downtown safety.

City Manager David Corliss told a crowd of about 50 people – many of them local bar and nightclub owners – Wednesday that he’s intent on the City Commission having a serious discussion about new regulations that could ease concerns about violence and safety issues around drinking establishments. The new regulations – ranging from special licenses to earlier closing times – would be citywide, but Corliss said safety concerns in downtown were a major reason for the discussion.

“I told the City Commission when I was fortunate enough to be picked as city manager that downtown will not falter on my watch,” Corliss said. “I think this is a major issue for downtown.”

Courses of action

City staff members have developed a variety of new regulations that city commissioners could adopt. The ideas have been presented to past commissions without any action being taken, but Corliss said he was planning on presenting the options to the current City Commission sometime in August. The options include:

¢ A new city system that would require “entertainment venues” to be licensed by the city. Currently, the city has little legal ability to revoke a bar’s liquor license. Only state regulators can revoke a liquor license. But if the city created a new “entertainment license” the city could revoke that license, which would prohibit a bar from playing music or hosting other entertainment events.

¢ A new city ordinance that would create staggered closing times for bars around town, in an effort to limit the surge of people hitting the streets at the traditional 2 a.m. closing time.

¢ A change in the city’s zoning laws that would require drinking establishments to obtain a special-use permit to operate in the city. This is the same type of permit, for example, that homeless shelters must receive to operate in the city. The special-use permits are voted on by the City Commission – usually every three to five years – and commissioners can place special conditions on the permit.

¢ A new requirement that would mandate drinking establishments to hire trained security guards to staff their bars.

Limited resources

As in the past, members of the bar industry didn’t like what they heard. Several in the crowd told commissioners that the simple solution was to hire more police officers because the city admits most of the problems are not happening inside bars, but rather are the result of actions by patrons after they’ve left a bar.

“We have to accept that this community is growing, but I just never see in our budget that we’re really giving our police department more resources,” said Rob Farha, owner of The Wheel. “I get frustrated as a taxpayer. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on roundabouts, but there are safety issues greater than that.”

Corliss said this year’s budget included two new sergeant positions for the police department, but the recommended 2008 budget does not include the department’s request for new officers. Police department leaders on Wednesday said they would like to add about 15 officers to their Friday night patrol, for example, to get their staffing levels up to about 30 officers for the busy Friday night shift. Corliss estimated it cost about $60,000 to hire and equip a new police officer.

“I would like to put more resources into law enforcement, but right now we don’t have those financial resources,” Corliss said. “But at some point you also have to ask how much of it is the taxpayers’ responsibility to have that many police officers versus the responsibility of the bars to deal with some of the problems.”

Other bar owners asked why the city hasn’t tried to talk with owners of problematic bars to correct the problem. Both Corliss and Mayor Sue Hack said they had tried, but have been told that some bar owners feel that problems caused by their patrons outside their establishments are not the bar’s responsibility. Corliss said he flatly disagrees with that.

“I think if a business attracts consistent problems, the business has a responsibility to deal with that,” Corliss said. “If you don’t think you have the resources to deal with it, then I don’t think you should be in business.”

Too much power?

Bar and nightclub owners said they were concerned the new regulations that have been proposed would give the city too much discretionary power to have their businesses shut down. Peach Madl, an owner of The Sandbar, said many bar owners had become more leery of Lawrence politics following the city’s enactment of the smoking ban over objections of bar owners.

“We don’t want to feel like our business is dependent on the political atmosphere because this is our livelihood after all,” Madl said.

Corliss tried to assure the crowd that no City Commission would take the task of revoking a bar’s license lightly.

“This is not some type of ‘Footloose’ movie where we are trying to squash people from dancing,” Corliss said. “We’re trying to have wise regulations that allow us to step up and deal with problems.”