November 8, 2017 10:50:24 AM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
Another Columbus nightclub is feeling the squeeze of the city council's "Safety First" philosophy.
The hammer fell on Premier Lounge, however, by mandate rather than through negotiation.
By a 4-2 margin, councilmen approved an ordinance that effectively requires Premier Lounge -- near where a police officer-involved fatal shooting of an apparently armed man occurred early Saturday morning -- to close at 10 p.m. for at least the next six months. After six months, City Attorney Jeff Turnage said the city council will review the ordinance for readjustment.
Councilmen Fred Jackson and Stephen Jones, of wards 4 and 5, respectively, opposed the measure. Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens -- in whose ward the 22nd Street South club is located -- proposed Premier's probation.
"This incident put us in a position where we have to respond," Mickens told Premier owners Steven and Christy Short, who appeared before the council's Tuesday evening meeting in the Fant Library at Mississippi University for Women to defend themselves.
Technically, the ordinance sets operating hours of 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily for any business that sells alcohol and sits: within a C-3 (highway commercial) zone; within 150 feet of a single-family residential zone (R-1); within 200 feet of a church; within 300 feet of a two-family residential zone (R-2); within 500 feet of a multi-family (R-3); and within six blocks of a state university.
The ordinance only applies to establishments that meet all the above criteria, which according to Turnage and City Code Enforcement Officer Kenny Wiegel is only Premier Lounge.
Christy Short protested before the council vote, imploring its members to reconsider. She said Premier is only open "three to four times per month" and usually from 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
"To say we're only to be open for an hour is not fair," she said. "You're singling us out. That's not fair."
Mayor Robert Smith, who openly supported the ordinance, pointed to other instances in recent years when businesses where there had been shooting incidents had worked with the city to voluntarily reduce hours for a limited time.
Specifically, he noted The Princess nightclub downtown and Okay Foods grocery store on Seventh Avenue North, whose owners volunteered to temporarily reduce their hours after shootings this year. At Okay Foods, the shooting was inside the store. The shooting that spurred The Princess negotiations occurred in the streets outside the club.
Smith also mentioned the Columbus Fairgrounds, which temporarily curtailed events where alcohol would be consumed after a non-fatal shooting during a party there.
"The other businesses did this voluntarily," Smith told the Shorts. "To say we're picking on Premier Lounge, that's not true."
Before the vote, Jackson asked the Shorts if they would be willing to close at midnight for six months. They agreed.
However, that did not sway the majority of the council.
At about 1 a.m. Saturday, CPD Patrolman Jared Booth responded to Premier Lounge to a report that someone had been hit with a bat, according to Police Chief Oscar Lewis.
After Booth arrived, he heard two gunshots in the area and ran across the street from the club, where he reportedly came upon two men trying to wrestle a gun away from 24-year-old Raymond Davis. After twice warning all three men to "get the f*** down," sources who have watched Booth's body camera footage said Davis spun around with a gun pointed in the direction of the officer, and the officer fired.
Councilmen, who have seen the footage, described a hectic scene in the club's parking lot that was filled with people.
More to the point, Smith on Tuesday listed four other instances where police had been called to Premier between March and September this year -- for disturbances ranging from fights to a man reporting he "feared for his life."
Christy Short told the council all of the previous reports came during a time when she had leased the club to a third party. After that year lease expired in September, she "took the club back" because it wasn't "going in the direction we wanted it to go."
Since the Shorts resumed management duties, Christy said they keep seven security guards on staff and have had surveillance installed inside and outside the club.
She said the guards also check everyone who enters the club, and they don't allow weapons inside.
"People know we're back, and they are happy about that because they know it's a safe environment," Christy said. "... Safety is our number one priority, but sometimes you have knuckleheads who are there."
On the night of the Davis shooting, Christy said she was unaware of anyone being hit with a bat. She added the club was closed at the time of the shooting, which happened across the street, and not on the Shorts' property, as club-goers were headed to their vehicles. She claims she and her staff followed all the safety protocols that night.
She added she and her husband "have a good relationship" with CPD and typically ask police to help them clear the area around their property after the club closes.
"We've been getting a lot of backlash," Christy told the council. "... For it to seem like we don't care is what hurts the most. Because we do."
'Where will we stop?'
Speaking to The Dispatch after the meeting, Councilman Jones said he is appalled at the ordinance targeting Premier Lounge.
"We're not in the business of keeping people from making money," Jones said. "I think those people were willing to work with us somehow, and I think we should have gone that route."
While Jones believes the environment around the club -- specifically people loitering in the parking area after the club closed -- played a role in Saturday's shooting, he believes the city has some responsibility to help make the exterior safer through heavier police patrols and possibly better street lighting.
"It's a thin line, especially when we're making businesses close at an earlier time," Jones said. "Where will we stop? We want citizens to be safe, but I also think business owners should have rights."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.