City council votes not to change bar hours

Published 10:30 am Monday, June 25, 2018

By Ken Gustasfson

AMERICUS — At its monthly meeting on Thursday, the Americus City Council addressed the issue of the alcohol ordinance in front of a packed house at the Russell Thomas Jr. Public Safety Building.
The first item on the agenda was the amendment to the alcohol ordinance. The ordinance states that all bars in Americus are required to make a last call for alcohol sales at 12:30 a.m. and close at 1 a.m. This ordinance was adopted by the Mayor and the City Council in April 2017. Prior to the ordinance, bars were allowed to wait until 1:30 a.m. to make the last call to serve alcoholic beverages and close at 2 a.m.
However, since the current ordinance went into effect, there have been cries for the city council to reverse last year’s decision and allow bars to serve alcohol up until 1:45 a.m. and close at 2 a.m. At last month’s meeting, the City Council voted to table the proposal and discuss it at its meeting in June.
That meeting came Thursday. Five people addressed the council on the matter. Some were for changing the ordinance to a 1:45 a.m. last call time and 2 a.m. closing time. Others were for keeping the ordinance as it is.
The first person to address the City Council was Sharad Patel, owner of the Windsor Hotel. Mayor Barry Blount told Patel that he had three minutes, as did all of the speakers.
“I’m here to urge you all not to change the time of the alcohol ordinance,” Patel told the council. At that point, Patel showed the council two videos taken on Friday, June 15. One video showed a man urinating on the street. The other video showed a woman unknowingly stepping into a puddle of urine. Patel told the council that the concern for tabling this vote at the last meeting was to do more investigating. “I have checked the other side of the parking lot on Windsor Avenue,” Patel said. “I have reviewed the footage myself and there is no troubling activity on that side. I also invite every member of the council to come and review the footage.” Patel made this point to the council because, according to Patel, at the last city council meeting on May 17, Commissioner Daryl Dowdell asked to see video footage of what was taking place on the Windsor Avenue side of the hotel. Patel said the police reports that were given to the council were reviewed by him and his staff at the Windsor Hotel. “They (the police reports) were 13 calls of service from the hotel,” Patel said. Patel said that multiple guests staying at the Windsor reported noise coming from the Urban Lounge. Patel also told the council that in the video which shows the man urinating in the street, music can be heard coming from the Urban Lounge because the door was open. “The second one (video) is of a poor lady walking and standing in the puddle of urine that the man had left before. That is disgusting,” Patel said.
Before his three minutes were up, Patel urged the council not to change the ordinance. After Patel was finished, Councilman Nelson Brown asked Patel if he passed along the information in the videos to the police. Patel replied that he did. Americus Police Chief Mark Scott, who was in attendance, said the man seen on the video urinating was charged. Councilman Dowdell asked Patel if he had heard loud music coming from the Urban Lounge while he was at the Windsor Hotel. Patel said yes.
Next up to speak was Sadie McLeod, who lives at 633 Ga. Highway 49 South in Americus. McLeod is in favor of changing the ordinance to allowing the bars to stay open till 2 a.m. After introducing herself to the city council, McLeod gave her reasons for wanting the council to change the current ordinance. “I’m a third-generation property owner and city tax payer,” McLeod told the council. “I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you prior to your final vote regarding the alcohol beverage license ordinance amendment.” McLeod said her family supports the 2 a.m. closing time in order for the town to be more progressive and grow tourism dollars. “We live in an interesting area in which visitors are and will be drawn,” McLeod told the council. “We need the town to be inviting, entertaining, and even hip. We need the tax dollars that locals and visitors bring to our town. People staying, dining, dancing and visiting downtown expect some noise.” McLeod used examples of cities such as Athens, Georgia, New Orleans, Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah and Austin, Texas, as cities whose downtown areas command the highest room and rental rates because of the entertainment environments. “We are a bedroom community of Atlanta,” McLeod told the council. “The movie industry will seek us out, as will others.” McLeod said Americus needs to be ready, and to have an inviting, entertaining community. “The historic downtown is the drawing card,” McLeod told the council. “This change in the ordinance seemed to become focused on a business that is renting from our family: Urban Restaurant and Bar.”
McLeod continued her speech by telling the council that Charvis Mann is the owner of Urban Restaurant and Bar on Jackson Street. “He is a young man from our own community,” McLeod said. “He grew up in Ellaville and was educated at South Georgia Tech and Fort Valley State University in electrical engineering. He had a dream to open his own business in our town. Our family has been fortunate to be able to help him begin his journey.”
McLeod went on to say that Mann had done his homework regarding the business environment. McLeod said that Mann had concluded that the 2 a.m. closing time was a drawing card. “In my opinion, we should be celebrating that one of our county’s children has done this,” McLeod said. “We should not be trying to run him out of town. Let’s be mentoring and partnering with him and inspiring other youth growing up here to come back home and build their dream.”
McLeod expressed her disappointment that another downtown business owner approached her and her family in an effort to rent the building out from under Charvis Mann just because the other business owner didn’t like the style of Mann’s business. “Let’s work together constructively rather than be destructive,” McLeod said. “We cannot afford to become a one-pony town.”
McLeod finished up her three-minute speech by imploring the city council to consider the town’s future as they consider their final vote. “We need to fill the empty buildings with more food and entertainment,” McLeod said. “We need to invite diverse businesses to grow more revenue for our city. As we grow into a vibrant destination, our city’s infrastructure can become stronger.”
Up next to address the City Council was Victoria McLeod, who also lives at 633 Ga. Highway 49 South in Americus. She also was in favor of changing the alcohol ordinance. “As Sadie has indicated, we are property owners and tax payers in this city for over 100 years,” McLeod said. “There have been implications that patrons from Urban have been disruptive on the streets late at night. It is unrealistic to think that any business owner can be responsible for the behavior of individuals once the individuals have left the establishment, no matter what time of day or night.” Victoria McLeod said that individuals acting foolishly are not always under the influence of alcohol. She sited road rage as one example. She went on to say that with entertainment establishments, along with more shopping and dining, Americus will have more people on its sidewalks than anywhere. “We will have visitors on the streets at all hours if we are doing our job as community leaders, business owners and property owners,” McLeod said. “Business owners do need to be responsible and clean up quickly behind their patrons so that it is inviting to the next visitors to our town.” McLeod said she is very disappointed that not all business owners clean up after their patrons, and that she has documentation of this. “We need to join together in keeping the sidewalks free of weeds and the dangers of broken and uneven pavements to protect the pedestrians and joggers like me. The recent rains have caused some issues that we need to address,” McLeod said. “We realize that diversity makes some people uncomfortable, as is evidenced frequently in these meetings and in our community. We need to respectfully agree to disagree sometimes and work to find common ground to strengthen the health of this community. The time is now.” McLeod said it would be wonderful to strengthen the city’s financial status with more tourism funding. She also said the salaries of police officers could be funded through tourism dollars. She suggested that more tourism dollars could pay to install cameras for the safety of the city, which would reduce vandalism and theft. “As leaders, we urge you to vote in favor of the 2 a.m. closing time,” McLeod told the city council. “It is a small step towards becoming a more progressive, vibrant community in which more investors may consider our community to bring their businesses here.”
Up next to speak was Nema Etheridge, who lives at 406 Barlow St. in Americus. She was in favor of keeping the ordinance as it currently stands. She first told the council that she respects each and every one of them. She went on to say that she couldn’t agree with the McLeods more, and that Americus is going to be at its best when its people are living as a fully-accepting and equally-diverse community. “I actually like to go out and party,” Etheridge told the council. “I like the idea of a 2 a.m. closing time. However, I really do not think that right now is the time.” She said that through the videos that Sharad Patel showed earlier, and what has been heard on the streets of Americus shows that there is an issue of drunkenness on the streets. “I think we as a community have to come together to solve that issue,” Etheridge said. “I think that extending the hours doesn’t solve the issue. It doesn’t help the Patels, who have spent their lives here. They’ve invested in this community. It also doesn’t do good service to the gentleman who owns Urbans.” Etheridge said if there is a problem in the streets of the city of Americus and an understaffed police department has to deal with this issue, the resources aren’t there to make it a hospitable town for people after a certain hour. “I just want to encourage you to think about what this town can accomplish if everyone comes together … really listening to each other and really hearing what we have to say,” she said. “We have a hotel-motel tax that generates $238,000 towards the city of Americus. That money could be used, perhaps, to help increase payment to the police officers.” She told the council that Americus could be a community that is exceptional in the South, but the people would have to come together.
The final speaker to address the council on the matter was Mary LaFevers. LaFevers was in favor of keeping the ordinance as it is. She began her remarks by stating to the council that she would like to give her three minutes to Sharad Patel. The mayor informed her that she couldn’t do that. “Nobody can hear him,” LaFevers told the mayor. The mayor replied “I’m sorry.” LaFevers said that it was unfortunate.
With that, LaFevers said, “I pick up trash every morning. The remnants of the evening fire. I can tell you that it’s pretty disgusting. People come to my office because they want their home to be beautiful. Our downtown is really something special.” She said she has traveled all over the world. She mentioned that she recently came from Europe and she expressed how special downtown Americus is. “The way that it is being cared for is really sad,” LaFevers said. “We can make a difference. This group of people that sits in front of me right now can make a difference.” She said the building that the Urban Lounge is in is in disrepair and that since that business has opened, the glass has been broken out. “The glass that is broken is the type of glass that if someone fell into, it would cut them up because it’s not shatter-proof,” LaFevers said. She said it is a dangerous situation when there are people around that are intoxicated or urinating in the street or standing in a puddle of urine. “It’s not going to help this business to be held open any longer,” LaFevers said. “It’s going to cost our city more money and it’s going to cost our city morale.” She said the people of Americus need to come together to beautify the town. “In Texas, which is where I’m from, we have a saying: ‘Don’t mess with Texas’. Don’t mess it up. We need to think about that. Maybe that’s something to consider if this unfortunate law were to come into effect.”
After LaFevers’ speech was over, Victoria McLeod asked the mayor if she had any time left over. The mayor said she did not.
At that point, the mayor instructed the members of the council to look over the items on the agenda and to make a motion for adoption. Councilman Dowdell made a motion to approve the proposed extension of the closing time to 2 a.m. Councilman Nelson Brown seconded the motion. Dowdell and Brown voted for it, but the other council members: Lou Chase, Charles Christmas, Kelvin Pless and Juanita Wilson, voted against the amendment. It was defeated by a vote of 4-2. However, before the vote was taken, Brown had some things to say concerning the amendment. “For the benefit of the people in the audience, I just want to say that I am not speaking on behalf of the council. I’m speaking for myself.” He said he has talked with Patel, the owner of the Urban Lounge and several clergy, as well as people who frequent bars and those who don’t. He also said the checked police records. “Putting that all together, my vote, at this time, would be for extending the time, but not for extending the time for the consumption part of it,” Brown said. “I would be talking about stipulations because we need some. Like I said before, it should be this council. It should be the business owners. It should be law enforcement, and it should be the regular people and you heard from some of the regular people here tonight.” Brown said before Dowdell made a motion a while back to extend the time, he (Brown) didn’t know about any of these existing problems. “Everything that we’ve been discussing is about the 12:30 a.m. hour,” Brown said. “What I mean by this now is that in the future, when an issue comes up, we need to talk about it then. We need to talk about it to the right people like we are doing right now.”
Councilman Charles Christmas, who voted against the amendment, also had some comments. “We do have a great downtown,” Christmas said. “We need to have our tourists and our business downtown see that. I still stand by my voting against it.”