In Little Rock, for the time being, it's still possible to stay out drinking and dancing 'til the break of dawn. That soon could be history. For months now, the City Board of Directors has been discussing the possibility of forcing all clubs in Little Rock to close by 2 a.m. The discussion is aimed at the few nightspots that are currently allowed to stay open until 5 a.m. by virtue of possessing one of the few grandfathered-in Class B Private Club licenses, which the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board stopped issuing in 2001. There are 13 Class B licenses in Little Rock, only eight of which are connected to an active nightclub: Triniti, Salut, Paper Moon, Midtown Billiards, Jazzi's, Club Elevations, Discovery and Electric Cowboy. (Jazzi's elects to close at 3 a.m.)
One ordinance that would shut down late-night clubbing is the work of Ward 4 City Director Brad Cazort and at-large Director Gene Fortson. It would close Class B clubs at 2 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. during weekends and on holidays. A counterproposal presented to City Manager Bruce Moore by an association of private clubs would allow the clubs to stay open until 5 a.m., but would require a contingent of at least two off-duty police officers on site at each location, with the option to require more on a case-by-case basis if the Little Rock Chief of Police deems it necessary. An earlier ordinance put forward by at-large Director Joan Adcock, which would shut private clubs at 2 a.m. every night of the week, now appears to be off the table, with Adcock evidently supporting the proposal put forward by Cazort and Fortson.
Votes on the ordinance proposed by Cazort and Fortson and the pro-club proposal could happen as early as the next City Board meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19.*
On a recent Saturday morning visit to three of the 5 a.m. clubs — Midtown Billiards, Electric Cowboy and Club Elevations — we saw easily more than 1,000 people out between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The crowds we saw skewed young, and the off-duty police and security contingent overseeing them was large. We're not ashamed to say that there have been times in the past when we were among those crowds.
There's been a lot of fear-mongering recently about the 5 a.m. clubs — from opponents saying they are hotspots of crime to a recent story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in which Cazort (escorted on an exploratory jaunt to the 5 a.m. clubs by two undercover vice cops) called the wall-to-wall crowd at Midtown "a huge public safety issue" because they were allegedly beyond the capacity set by the fire marshal. But there are great and, dare we say it, important reasons to keep the clubs open all night. Just to be clear, we're not just pushing protectionism for those with Class B licenses, either. If we had our way, we'd let any bar or club that wants to do so stay open until dawn, and we believe it would still be a good thing for Little Rock. No foolin'. Here's why:
We've got a couple hundred thousand tourists a year streaming through Little Rock these days, and those are just the overnighters. That's not counting all the people who drive in from the hinterlands on the weekends to party and listen to music. Have you been on President Clinton Avenue around midnight on a Saturday lately? It's a zoo down there, man. Enough spangley outfits, revving motorcycles, stripper shoes, big hair and questionable undergarments to stage "Jersey Shore: The Musical" right this minute. Some people want to party. They want to dress up and drench themselves in sweet smellums. They want to drink and laugh and sweat and listen to music and have a good time. Some of them even want to do all that stuff 'til dawn. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's something right about it, especially if we want to help this city break the Bible Belt stereotype that has the rest of the world thinking Arkansas is still "Li'l Abner" meets "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Three little hours might not seem like much, but to the tourists who stay up until 2 a.m. only to find their entertainment options from then until daybreak are limited to Waffle House, it's a big deal. Do we really want to take the first step toward the re-podunkification of Little Rock, led by the same kind of prudes who wrote the Blue Laws back in the day to help make sure everybody kept the Sabbath holy whether they wanted to or not?
Here's the facts, ma'am: When people travel to a city, they don't take home fond memories of Johnny Gubmint knocking the drink out of their hand, yanking the plug on the jukebox and telling them it's time to go to bed. Sure, there is bound to be some drunken bad behavior associated with keeping these Little Rock clubs open until 5 a.m. (though not as much as you may have been led to believe). But that, friends, is the cost of making sure Little Rock keeps a reputation as a city that doesn't roll up the sidewalks when the chickens go to roost.
Since some on the City Board started talking about trying to limit the hours of the 5 a.m. clubs, the core of their argument has been about concern for public safety — that the clubs are associated with bad behavior. "Nothing good happens after 2 a.m." has been the rallying cry of those wanting to close late-night clubs, who are always ready to trot out the number of police calls to these venues between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Crime is being caused by the nogoodniks who frequent these clubs! If only they were at home watching funny cat videos on YouTube!
Well, before we pronounce Electric Cowboy a hive of scum and villainy, consider the following comparison. The Arkansas Times made a Freedom of Information Act request to the LRPD for all requests for police assistance made from the Walmart Supercenter stores at 8801 Baseline Road and 2700 Shackleford Road. Let's just say that if public safety is the issue, then the City Board better get its big pants on and tell Walmart it will have to close for the public good as well.
There were a total of 413 police calls made to the eight clubs with active Class B permits in 2013. Meanwhile, there were 692 calls made to the Walmart Supercenter at 8801 Baseline Road alone, and that particular store actually closes from midnight to 6 a.m. every night. There were 596 calls made to the 24-hour Walmart Supercenter at 2700 Shackleford in 2013, with police responding 46 times between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. last year. That's almost 8 percent of the yearly police calls to that location, and Uncle Wally sells duct tape, butcher knives, shovels, sheet plastic, thong underwear, Nyquil and Billy Ray Cyrus albums all night long. Oh, the humanity!
Meanwhile, the clubs themselves have also compiled some figures. The Arkansas Licensed Beverage Association (ALBA) — a coalition consisting of Elevations, Discovery, Triniti, Electric Cowboy and Midtown — says the number of total LRPD calls made to all the 5 a.m. clubs in 2013 was less than 0.3 percent of the 146,668 calls the department received last year. That's three-tenths of 1 percent. Not exactly a crime wave.
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