September 20, 2017 10:34:45 AM
Princess Theater owner Bart Lawrence plans to open the theater portion of his downtown nightclub for public events on Saturday with or without Columbus City Council approval.
The council on Tuesday tabled discussion on Lawrence's "action plan" for the Princess to allow more time for the owner and city leaders to "get on the same page." City Attorney Jeff Turnage said, though, there seems to be nothing city officials can do about it if Lawrence forges ahead.
"We don't have an ordinance in place to stop him, so I suppose he can do whatever he wants," Turnage told The Dispatch following the council's meeting in the Municipal Complex. "If he decides to go ahead, I hope there are no problems."
Lawrence self-imposed restrictions to the Princess following a March shooting outside the nightclub -- located at 215 Fifth Avenue South -- that damaged several vehicles parked downtown, some of which were occupied. No one, however, was injured.
The restrictions included an earlier closing time and shuttering the theater portion of the club until he developed a solid action plan that bolstered safety measures at his business and mitigated loitering outside. The club has since reinstated its normal operating hours.
On Tuesday, Lawrence's attorney Mark Jackson -- in his second meeting with councilmen since April updating them on the progress of the action plan -- ran into stiff resistance from city officials on how to set the patron capacity in the club once the theater section reopens.
Now, the club's permit allows 493 patrons, a number determined by state fire safety codes. Under the plan Jackson presented Tuesday, Lawrence would voluntarily drop that number to 400 -- including the usual capacity of 163 in the club's front area and 237 in the theater portion -- only during events utilizing the theater that serve alcohol and last past 11 p.m. He said Lawrence also will notify Columbus police at least 24 hours before such events.
During events in the theater portion where alcohol isn't served, Jackson said the club wants to maintain its 493 capacity, which would allow up to 330 patrons in the theater.
"I don't see any reason for him to concede 93 people (for those events)," Jackson said.
Moreover, Jackson called his presentation Tuesday, "a courtesy," noting several times he wasn't asking for council action.
However, Turnage said the city needs to codify Lawrence's as-yet voluntary change in capacity to avoid confusion if enforcement ever becomes necessary, even if it means specifying when the Princess is allowed to have 493 patrons and when it should have only 400.
"If we (the city fire marshal) go in there, and there are 450 people after 11 at an event that serves alcohol, what is the city to do if there is no ordinance?" Turnage asked. "I don't want to get crossed-up. We need to have something definitive in our code book."
Fire Chief Martin Andrews took the argument a step further, noting that having two codified capacities -- rather than a blanket capacity that always applies -- would confuse the court system if there were ever an enforcement issue.
"When we take it to city court, I guarantee you the judges won't understand a word of it," Andrews told the council.
Jackson argues, though, that Lawrence's concessions are voluntary and should remain that way.
"All of this has been voluntary from the start," Jackson told The Dispatch. "(Lawrence) has made a larger concession than I've seen any business bring forward, as far as safety measures go. That shows his commitment to maintaining safety at his business and helping maintain safety downtown."
Jackson told the council Lawrence had already taken several measures to increase safety at the club, including scanning patron IDs when they enter, which creates a digital record of who attends the Princess if police ever need it for an investigation.
The club also employs metal detector wands at the door and prohibits backpacks and large purses, Jackson said. Club staff also has begun turning people away at the door once the building reaches capacity and encouraging them to disperse, which Jackson said has eliminated lines outside.
Lawrence also employs security inside the club with plans to have guards posted outside the property to discourage loitering.
Ward 6 Councilmen Bill Gavin, speaking to The Dispatch after the meeting, said he would like to see Lawrence and the city agree on how to deal with the capacity issue before Lawrence reopens the theater portion.
"We need to come to an understanding and get on the same page," he said.
Stephen Jones, who represents Ward 5, said he's fine with Lawrence reopening the theater, as long as city police are aware of events there.
"I'm not in the business of stopping people from making money," Jones said. "As long as he works with Columbus Police Department, I'll be OK."
In other business, the council:
■ unanimously accepted the resignation of CPD officer Keith Dowd;
■ appointed Clyde Hollis to the Columbus-Lowndes County Public Library Board; and
■ approved, by a 4-2 vote, allowing beer and light wine consumption at the Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival Oct. 6-7 (Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box opposed).
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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