May 2, 2010 12:16:00 AM
The response – and lack of – to the recent fatal shooting at a Columbus nightclub is not only disturbing but also indicative of the city's propensity to sometimes be its own worst enemy.
Within days of the shooting, some city officials talked tough about cracking down on clubs and lounges, especially those with a history of violence-related problems. But, as too often is the case, the talk has been cheap, lots of indignant bluster and hand-wringing backed by no substantive action.
If the city's timid approach isn't bad enough, its chief economic development officer turned into a flame thrower, making an outlandish public comment is as appalling — and damaging — as the shooting itself.
A lack of will
City leadership showed a lack of will, caused in part by personal business and political ties.
Mayor Robert Smith owns the building in which the shooting occurred. And although he doesn't have an interest in the club itself, his financial tie to the building makes others uneasy.
Police Chief Joe St. John asked City Attorney Jeff Turnage to research the law on nuisance clubs and what options might be available to strengthen local ordinances to hold club managers accountable for what happens at their business.
It was a logical response. After all, he and the city's elected officials took an oath to uphold the laws of the state; even the town of Louisville and Winston County have taken action against a problem establishment.
State statutes say the chief “shall” ask the district attorney to petition to have a club's alcohol license suspended if the chief finds the business meets certain criteria for violence, moral turpitude and other provisions. St. John felt the Everyday Lounge and the Grey Goose, which has been the site of several incidents involving violence in the last two years, exceeded the standards.
But before asking District Attorney Forrest Allgood to proceed, St. John ran it up the political flag pole.
Instead of being supportive, Smith said such action would be too drastic. He must realize the shooting may not be his fault, but it is his problem.
His antagonist, Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem in whose district the Everyday Lounge is located, offered up tough talk but when given the chance to back words with action, he wilted, as did other council members.
Instead of stricter city ordinances, officials suggested stepped up police enforcement against loitering outside bars, restaurants and clubs, and meetings with bar owners. Police have started the crackdowns and the meeting was held with the owners, except the only ones brought in were the managers of African-American clubs and Freddie Fields, owner of Fuhgetaboutit in downtown Columbus.
That faint-hearted approach is flawed.
First, it makes police the only ones accountable. Bar owners get what amounts to a free pass. Police can't be everywhere at once – few would have expected a nightclub shooting on a Tuesday night – and leaves officers open to accusations of selective harassment.
The line between loitering and standing around talking is a fine one.
For instance, on a recent night a group of five or six people standing outside Fuhgetaboutit discussing who was riding where with whom were confronted by officers clearing the sidewalks. The group, which was harmless, left with less than warm feelings.
Instead of building relations, the officers, through no fault of their own, were made the bad guys.
The uneven standard begs the question of who says a group outside J. Broussard's, Harvey's, Helen's Kitchen or Skeet's isn't just as big a potential problem as one outside Zachary's or the Premier Lounge. Poorly defined enforcement based on time, day of the week, location and reputation only makes matters worse.
If safety is a big concern, then the City Council should give police some simple tools to make their jobs easier, even-handed and more efficient.
First, adopt an ordinance that says any business selling alcohol must share responsibility for the behavior of its patrons. After the first incident involving violence and a weapon, the business will be closed until it provides proof that it has $1 million in liability insurance or has taken other significant steps to improve security – metal detectors, trained security officers, etc.
The proactive approach will take away ammunition for comments like those made Friday by Joe Higgins, CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link.
In an article in The Commercial Dispatch on the city's retail prospects, Higgins said, “Quit shooting people in bars and we'll get some retail. We've got a situation where we're creating jobs but nobody wants to live here because they're scared.”
Higgins talked about a number of other matters, but he couched them all as “the city's” problems, not “our” problems. Nowhere did he offer concrete solutions, only broad criticisms.
The ill-advised comment is fueling a growing animosity between the city and the Link. Nowhere did he address safety, rundown and overgrown properties, a lack of zoning, or educational standards in the county, which, like the city, has been losing population for a decade.
In recent months, Higgins has had cross words with Smith, St. John and almost every council member over the Link's retail recruitment efforts and Higgins' concerns the administration is not doing enough to address what he sees as safety, financial, appearance and education issues.
By continuing to say such things publicly, Higgins is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; people are like lemings, if you tell them they are scared, they will be scared, if you tell them things are good, they'll be optimistic.
The key is striking the balance between blind optimism and destructive pessimism, a balance that will lead to action and cooperation, not animosity and frozen wills.
Ironically, much of the Link's funding depends on the city's well-being. It gets about $200,000 a year from the city's food and beverage tax so the more it positively promotes the city and its nightlife, the more money it receives. Instead, Higgins is telling people to lock their doors and stay home.
Furthermore, the Link gets about $100,000 from the city's general fund, not to mention dues from dozens of city retailers and the thousands of dollars donated by city-based businesses to a capital fund which pays for building improvements and its legislative liaison.
The recent nightclub shooting and other incidents at the Grey Goose and other spots may seem like they've gotten a lot of attention locally but in reality, they are no different than the problems other towns experience. Starkville, Tupelo and Tuscaloosa, communities often cited by Higgins as towns with which we are competing for residents and tax dollars, all have had as many – far more in Tuscaloosa's case – shootings and assaults as Columbus in the last two years.
Unfortunately, such negative incidents are a fact of life.
Frankly, I haven't seen the fear expressed by Higgins. I live seven blocks from him – although he has sold his house and is moving out of the city that helps pay him handsomely to represent it – and I don't see the fear he expresses. In fact, people walk, ride bikes, sit on their porches all hours of the day and night; one woman walks by herself through my and Higgins' neighborhood every morning at 6 a.m.
Scared of a shadow
If we are scared of a shadow, then we never will grow and prosper.
Instead of dwelling on the negative at every turn, Higgins would better serve the city and his position by focusing on the positive news that's occurred in the last three weeks or is about to occur, like a fabulous new downtown park to be unveiled Monday, almost $5 million in city and county road improvements, more than $2 million in sewer, water and drainage infrastructure work, the most successful Pilgrimage in the event's 70-year history, a renewed interest in small business, new and renovated
Yo''Mama commented at 5/2/2010 6:28:00 AM:
Well gee Steve.
The city showed a lack of will. I'm shocked. Will this result in Birney withdrawing his roses? Columbus talking the big talk and doing nothing. I'm just stunned.
"By continuing to say such things publicly, Higgins is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; people are like lemings, if you tell them they are scared, they will be scared, if you tell them things are good, they'll be optimistic."
Ok, what comic book did you read that one in Steve? So in your opinion people aren't capable of thinking for themselves, they must rely on Birney's grandma or you for our next move? I've got a news flash for you my pyromaniac friend, I am quite capable of thinking for myself, and I don't let this joke of a newspaper, or your drivel, form my opinions. Your "he didn't offer solutions, only only broad criticisms" is a weak attempt to dismiss that which you lack the stones to face. Congrats on becoming more like Birney. Maybe he'll let you pass out some roses one day.
"Instead of dwelling on the negative at every turn". So Steve, you prefer to let the kid sit in soiled diapers? Don't address it, just spray some Febreeze on it and act like it doesn't exist.
I dunno Steve, you just reek of Birney-isms. All fluff and damage control, no substance.
jd commented at 5/2/2010 10:56:00 AM:
Steve, if you don't like it here, you can always move.
JC commented at 5/2/2010 11:03:00 AM:
...an outlandish public comment is as appalling -- and damaging -- as the shooting itself.
Who did the comment kill?
OPINION commented at 5/2/2010 12:01:00 PM:
Way to go Steve, you got intestinal fortitude. Heck , if these libs don't like what you are saying , then you got to be on the right track, brother.
It's not surprising that who ever JC is doesn't understand what he reads, he not practical at all and sorta koothless, so keep up the good writing and just ignore the lib postings.
JC commented at 5/2/2010 1:02:00 PM:
he not practical at all and sorta koothless
I'm definitely not understanding this.
melody commented at 5/2/2010 3:34:00 PM:
So what's new about that?
Ted commented at 5/3/2010 12:04:00 AM:
Ted commented at 5/3/2010 12:05:00 AM:
UncBigDawg commented at 5/3/2010 3:00:00 PM:
Columbus does not have any leadership. Not to bring in the club owners and advise them if this type behavior continues their establishments will be shut down is a lame excuse. You are condoning this type of behavior to continue. If the Mayor would govern in a leadership fashion he would have done this. Who can be surprised at a Mayor who twice in less than a month has chosen not to lead. Mayor Smith do the right thing and resign. You are a joke and are making Columbus and Lowndes County the laughing stock of the Golden Triangle and Mississippi. Please step down and allow a true leader to take your place. Please before you take the city down the path of doom, never to return.
donhadit commented at 5/4/2010 8:55:00 AM:
Steve, I do not like most of what you write -- But you hit the nail on the head. Why do we keep talking about Tupelo and Starkville? We are just feeding the problem! We need to concentrate on COLUMBUS! Get sone leadership up town. Everybody wants to paddle in a different direction. Whe have everything we need to have a great Town. But we work hard to screw it up. We have all these meeting and ask for imput but "do nothing about it". It has been close to a year since the Cherette and nothing has been done. Another "BOOK ON THE SHELF". THE BURNS BOTTON MEETING WAS A FLOP!!!! One of the worst presentations I have ever seen. Is this just another "Book on the Shelf"????? Time will tell. Never pay a person before the job is complete!!!!
DAVE commented at 5/4/2010 1:48:00 PM:
Steve, Joe Max hates you worse than ever now. Stop by and say hello to old Joe sometime. He is always glade to see you. "BLAZE AWAY" OH MAN OF KNOLEDGE".
laughing at you commented at 5/5/2010 9:11:00 AM:
Donhadit, Columbus waddles along like it does because it is populated with a species of people who keep trying to decorate a pig and turn it into a princess, but they don't know how.
They put earrings (the soccer fields) on it and its still a pig. They put a dress on it (the bridge) and its still a pig. The put lipstick on it (the rotting train in the park) and its still a pig. They put new shoes on it (the riverwalk) and its still a pig.
They think if they can just paint, fluff, and hype long enough that one day their little pig will magically transform into a beautiful princess. And it isn't going to happen.
Look at all these other towns they like to compare themselves to and you will start to see a trend. They don't put all their eggs, or in our case, pigs, all in one basket. In fact, they have so many baskets you can't even keep track of them all.
What do we have here? Fishing contest once in a while, old homes, pork cooking deal, market street, you can finish the list if you like.
And how often does the city become over-flowing with tourist?? If the answer is less than 8 times per year, then you are not a tourism mecca.
Instead of thinking in small tater terms like somewhere to sit your fat butt after eating at Harveys, why not think grand? How about a "for real" public venue instead of that joke downtown? Book it with concerts, tractor pulls, gun shows, whatever and book it often. All those people will spend money here. Isn't that what you want?
How about a huge indoor water park? That's a year-round money maker.
Think outside the box for crying out loud.
A park bench bridge. Oh please.
Oink commented at 5/5/2010 10:28:00 AM:
@laughing at you: A pig won't ever be a princess but with a 55 gallon drum split in half, some lump charcoal, a little seasoned salt and about 10-13 hours you can nevertheless turn a pig into something delectable... something a large group of people can enjoy. We should all be constantly working to somehow enhance Columbus. It can be as simple as picking up a piece of litter or running for public office. That's how it is done: small improvements, one at a time.
You may not see value in it, but the fact is that this town has characteristics that make it unlike any other town. I think we are wise to continually build on those characteristics. We don't have to have a Six Flags or even a BancorpSouth Arena to have a great place to live.
As far as your proposed "huge indoor water park" goes, national developers don't think the entire Golden Triangle can support something as basic as a large shopping mall. Do you really think a developer (or a municipality) is going to invest $100 million dollars in a water park? Tunica- with it's casinos and nearby Memphis- hasn't broken ground on the $1 billion development that will include an indoor golf course and water park, and it announced that development years ago. Plus, you are still left with the issues we already have. I'm all for thinking outside of the box, but let's do something to build on what we have.
laughing at you commented at 5/6/2010 8:20:00 AM:
Build it and they will come.
Build on what we have?? What do we have Oink? A muddy oxbow, an old bridge, and a river walk? Wow, that's special. I'm surprised 60 Minutes hasn't been down here doing a story on it yet.
As far as national developers go, there were people who told the Wright brothers they couldn't fly, and there were people who told Columbus he would fall off the edge of the world, and they were both wrong.
And I didn't say a "water park". I said an "indoor water park". There is a huge difference.
My point being: bridges are small taters. You're going to end up spending all your money on a bag of small taters and getting small tater returns for it, if any at all. Other cities are making huge strides while Columbus is still walking on all fours.
But hey, it isn't any skin off my nose. Die however slowly you please.
1. Ask Rufus: Columbus in 1822 LOCAL COLUMNS
2. Our View: A call for help is not an admission of failure DISPATCH EDITORIALS
4. Marc Dion: Coat and tie required NATIONAL COLUMNS
5. Voice of the people: Robert Smith LETTERS TO THE EDITOR (VOICE@CDISPATCH.COM)