|2008-10-09 Columns |
|Council Puts a Boot in Downtown Nightlife|
|October 09, 2008|
Back when I was a kid in Greensboro, the downtown was the place to go. Whether it was to buy clothes, eat at a restaurant or do business, that all took place downtown. Shopping centers, malls and office parks came along, hurting the downtown, but the city government put the final nail in the downtown coffin. The city eliminated practically all parking on Elm Street and eliminated on-street parking almost everywhere else. The city decided that people should park in the new parking garages it had built.
That was a great plan, except for the fact that lots of people hate to park in parking garages and, in the 1970s, parking garages were considered weird and dangerous by much of the population. What happened was just about all of the retail businesses and restaurants were driven out of the downtown. For a time Love Wig and the Bargain Box were two of the downtown retail anchors.
The city seems to think it was just a coincidence, but when parking was added to Elm Street and parking allowed on Market, Friendly, Greene and Davie, the downtown started coming back.
Today downtown Greensboro is hopping. During the day it is a business center with some retail, and at night it is an entertainment district. But the city is working hard to drive businesses out of the downtown once again.
The City Council raised the fines on overcrowding by more than 1,000 percent on Tuesday night, Oct. 7. This means that bars and restaurants, which sometimes get overcrowded, will not just be fined, they will be clobbered. Currently the fine for overcrowding is $150. The city raised it to $150 plus $100 for each person in excess of the posted capacity. So a club that has one extra person gets a $250 fine, and a club with 10 over the limit gets a $1,150 fine.
Clubs shouldn't be overcrowded, but it doesn't seem fair to fine them out of business for miscounting or having some customer open a fire exit and let 20 people in when the security guard is busy elsewhere.
Blocking a fire exit can be a subjective call. Before Tuesday's meeting, it was a $150 fine. The council passed a new regulation where the first violation is $150 plus $500, the second is $150 plus $1,000, and the third and all subsequent violations are $150 plus $1,500. That's a lot of money for having some customer move a table in front of a fire exit.
Councilmembers said that this was part of a deal to allow outdoor dining until 1 a.m. What fire exits and overcrowding have to do with sidewalk dining is hard to understand, but that was the deal.
It would appear the city is still targeting a couple of downtown clubs, and since the city can't get them on sidewalk dining anymore, the city is now going to be able to fine them big time if they get overcrowded. The city is determined to run a couple of businesses out of the downtown, but it would appear they could run out far more than they bargained for.
Then there is parking. The city is planning on booting cars and towing cars with outstanding parking tickets. Booting and towing cars for having a couple of parking tickets that haven't been paid is not going to attract people to the downtown. If booting cars attracted customers, then Friendly Shopping Center would boot cars day and night. The shopping centers and malls offer free parking for as long as you want, as does Green Valley Office Park, which is where a lot of business offices have gone.
The more business unfriendly the downtown is made, the more businesses will be moved out of the downtown. It is interesting that at night, when parking is free on street and in the parking decks, the downtown is booming. So the way the city is going to attract more daytime business downtown, either retail or office, is to make illegal parking far more punitive.
I haven't had a parking ticket in months because I park in a private parking lot, but when I paid a monthly fee and parked in a city parking garage, I used to get tickets regularly. I would park in front of our office on East Market Street to run in and grab something, planning to only be there for a minute. It didn't seem to make sense to wind my way up four floors in the parking garage, park, walk down, walk back up, and wind my car back down. But often when I got in the office I would get a telephone call or get asked a question or forget that I was just going to run in for a second. I often got tickets, which I promptly paid when the city notified me of the ticket. However, the city doesn't always manage to send out that notification. I had some tickets I didn't know about become overdue and had to pay the $25 penalty for them. If the booting had been in effect, I would have been eligible for the boot because I had not paid tickets I didn't know about. That would not have endeared the downtown to me.
The city still has over $2 million in outstanding parking fines, which nobody appears to be doing anything about collecting because the only way to collect the money from the city's point of view is to boot and tow cars. Councilmember Zack Matheny had a better idea. He suggested the city have a parking amnesty week where the $25 late fee would be waived for everyone who came in and paid the original fine. He said Las Vegas collected $5 million with such a program. Hard financial times are here. If the city could collect $200,000, that would be a big help.
It is just startling to me that after decades with little activity downtown Greensboro is finally coming back and the City Council seems intent on doing everything it can to bring it down.
Doubling fines for being overcrowded would be a whale of an increase, but the increases that the City Council has passed are raising the fines by over 1,000 percent in some cases. The council barely discussed the increases. Who is going to come out against fines for fire code violations?
However, one bar owner who obviously wants to remain anonymous said that he planned to put his place up for sale if the new fines went into effect, which by the way is in 30 days. You have to sell a lot of beer to make a $1,650 profit. A few places downtown are making a killing, but there are more that are just getting by, and if they have a big night and let too many people in and face a $1,000 or $1,500 fine, it may be enough to make the owner pack it up and move somewhere more business friendly.
I have been at more than one City Council meeting where somebody let too may people in the council chambers and that room was over capacity, but fortunately for the council the city doesn't fine itself.