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City of Columbia council members are hearing arguments in favor and against a proposal to prohibit bars from being open late night hours.

Currently, almost two dozen bars within the city limits have late night permits to serve beer and wine after 2 a.m., although liquor is still prohibited in the late night hours.

The new proposal has been driven by concerned community members, who believe the prohibition could create a safer, more orderly downtown environment.  As University of South Carolina students increasingly move into rented homes in residential neighborhoods close to the downtown hospitality scene, public order near the entertainment districts has become an increasing concern for some residents.  The argument is being heard by the public safety committee, comprised of City Councilmen Daniel Rickenmann, Ed McDowell, and Sam Davis, and may be up for a vote as soon as this month.

News coverage over the last two months has heard the opinions of University of South Carolina students, City of Columbia residents, and local neighborhood associations.  However, the prohibition may have the greatest effect on a forgotten class of individuals: the restaurant and bar hospitality industry workers who may lose both their income and their after-work social setting.

Late Night Licenses: Should Every Bar Have Theirs Revoked, or Just Some?

Prohibition would likely cause damage the revenue of small, locally owned businesses such as Bar None and Nightcaps, both of which have been staples of Columbia’s late night bar and restaurant service industry for years.  It would also create a disproportionately negative effect on the economic well-being of city of Columbia residents who work in the late night hospitality industry.  David Harris, owner of Nightcaps, shared his opinion on the possible prohibition’s unintended victim.

“Of course I’m not in favor of the ban for a couple of reasons…we’ve been in business here for just under 20 years, and we’ve always depended on the late night crowd for revenue,” said Harris.  “Now, we’re looking at having our business hours cut in half, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it.”

The lack of evidence to support the prohibition is a frustration felt by many restaurant industry workers.  “I really don’t feel like enough research or thought has gone into the problem, for it to simply be solved by passing more laws,” said James Bryant, general manager of Speakeasy.  “We need to have a more open discussion on this situation in order to better understand the city’s grievances and to possibly come to an understanding that wouldn’t cost everyone involved.  Not only will this proposal cost service industry workers, but think about all the revenue the city will lose in late night licenses and taxes generated from sales during those hours.”

Although Speakeasy is not a late night bar, Bryant feels the ban would “have a negative effect on all local businesses,” a sentiment that was echoed by other industry workers.  Some, such as Tin Roof bartender Boone McClendon, said that the prohibition would be “a game changer” for Columbia’s hospitality industry, with late night crowds possibly being driven to neighboring cities like West Columbia.  It is speculated that small business owners in nearby cities could take advantage of the city of Columbia pushing out its late night bars and restaurants.

Since much of the discussion so far has focused on issues in the Five Points neighborhood, some service industry workers expressed resentment, believing a small number of businesses may be costing other bars and restaurants their opportunities to stay open late night hours.  Nightcaps owner Harris, who operates past 2 a.m. on weekdays with a special permit, said the his bar, which is located on Devine Street just outside of Five Points, does not cause problems for those who live or work nearby.

“The current permit program allows the city to regulate who can responsibly run their business after 2 a.m.,” explained Harris.  “There needs to be a fair way to weed out some of the bars, because a lot of these places aren’t doing anything wrong.  Here, our neighbors agree: serving late night is not a problem.  It seems like there’s just a couple bars in Five Points causing the most issues, but it would be tricky to single them out with a huge backlash.”

Where, and What, is the Problem?

Employees in neighboring entertainment districts, like The Vista, the City Center/Main Street district, and Rosewood echoed this sentiment.  “Five Points is a disaster, and needs some structure, or someone enforcing laws,” one bartender wrote to Midlands Anchor.

Josh Bumgarner is an employee of Five Points late night restaurant Bar None, and he has been active in speaking out against the proposed ban  According to Bumgarner, Bar None and other neighborhood pubs are getting a lot of undeservedly negative attention.

“The opposition is only focusing on the Five Points district completely. At the last Public Safety Hearing, Kit Smith only complained about Five Points and did not even begin to express any interest in The Vista, Rosewood, or Main Street, which is a blatant bias,” said Bumgarner.

Bumgarner said Five Points has been on the receiving end of most of the negative attention regarding late night bar problems, including “the recent SLED sting that was directed only at Five Points (businesses).”

“I came into work a few weeks back and SLED was there writing a ticket for a violation that happened a week before. SLED supposedly had kids come in and order liquor at 2:16 a.m., then video taped bartenders serving them liquor,” said Bumgarner.  “But the kicker is that there was absolutely no proof provided.  This is extremely unethical, and even now, almost two months since the ‘violation,’ not one of any of the eleven (incidents from the sting) have been shown any proof.  That’s the equivalent of going 5mph over the speed limit and then sending me a ticket a week later with no documentation.”

“The Logic is Flawed”: Who is Out After 2 a.m.?

Bradley Morgan works at Breakers Bar & Grill and Breakers Live, also housed in the Five Points entertainment industry.  Although Breakers does have a late night permit, Morgan said it is usually only used for special events, as most of their clientele leaves prior to 2 a.m.  Still, Morgan said “it is nice to have the ability (to stay open late) when the situation warrants it.”  And like other service industry workers, Morgan suspects that the complaints in favor of late night prohibition are mostly hysteria, and he doubts that there is actually enough evidence to support the ban.

“The arguments about the increase in underage drinking in Five Points recently and vandalism are bogus and are certainly not due to the fact that some bars stay open beyond 2 a.m. on a regular basis,” said Morgan. “The logic is flawed, and it is flawed from the premise which is that people are continually getting more intoxicated as the morning hours wear on.”

“People don’t understand that the 2 a.m. is mostly service industry people who are getting off work and trying to unwind before making their way home,” said Morgan. “Service industry folks, especially in Five Points, work when most everyone isn’t working – nights and weekends – and believe it or not, most are friends, even if their respective employers compete for business. The late night bars serve as a place where the folks getting off work can hang out, catch up and have a drink if they so desire – it’s not about trying to get students/young professionals intoxicated, and it certainly is having little effect on the surrounding neighborhood.”

Like Morgan, many other service industry workers expressed that the prohibition disproportionately targets the service industry crowd, a group that one local chef referred to as “modern day blue collar folks.”  Indeed, Nightcaps owner Harris agreed that most of his late night customers are not University of South Carolina students, although that is what many of the complainants have stated.

“It’s a misconception that they’re all college students out partying,” said Harris.  “Here at Nightcaps, it’s almost all second shift workers who come in at 1 or 2 a.m. to socialize, unwind, and have a bite to eat after work.  So that’s not fair to them, to take their social life away.”

“I have worked at late night bars in Five Points to make extra money through the years,” said local chef and bartender Matthew Pate.  “These places don’t have problems with rowdy college kids.  It’s a place to come relax and unwind.  9 to 5 workers have places to go when they get off…if you bartend from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., you have limited options.  Taking that away hurts the whole industry.  People working at late night spots rely on this revenue to support themselves.  They have families, just like everyone else.”

Second Shift Workers Feel Targeted

“It seems a little unfair that we won’t be able to go have a few beers after work like everyone else (if the prohibition happens),” said Five Points bartender Jay Morris. “Some of my favorite memories have come from those nights when everyone met at a bar after a long shift and just shared stories about their night…it’s our time to relax.”

Established late night spots like Bar None and Nightcaps are often staffed with what Pate refers to as “veteran bartenders,” well-trained service industry professionals who are knowledgable and skilled not only in bartending, but also in crowd management, checking IDs, and liquor laws.  Harris and Bumgarner both suggested that a prohibition would unfairly hurt local small business owners and service industry workers who have been following the rules for years.  According to Bumgarner, Bar None is not the kind of bar that offers “$1 liquor shots,” but instead caters into an older crowd and has a staff that cares about the bar’s reputation.

As the citywide debate about late night prohibition continues, many restaurant workers hope their voices will be heard.  The ban could negatively impact the well-being of multiple locally owned small businesses, as well as cause a major loss of income for many local workers.  According to Bumgarner, this is a time when the often-ignored hospitality industry workers need to find their voice and come together to protest the prohibition.

“I am extremely disappointed by the lack of support that the service industry has for this whole thing,” said Bumgarner. “We have not won this fight.  We may lose this if people do not come and support small business owners who can respectfully stay open late.”

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