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