BY NOW, MOST OF YOU have probably either read —or at least heard about— our cover story in last week’s issue.
In case you have not (or even if you did read the published piece) I urge you to head to www.connectsavannah.com and check out the expanded and up-to-date version online. It includes late-breaking info that did not meet our print deadlines, coupled with transcripts of the lengthy phone interviews I conducted with both Locos Deli & Pub co-owner Ben Everette and Alderman Johnson.
For those unfamiliar with the matter, depending on whom you believe, there is an ongoing battle pitting, on one side: Van Johnson, the City Manager’s office, the Revenue Dept., and —according to Alderman Johnson— the entire rest of the City Council, and, on the other, Locos.
Seemingly, the battle is over whether or not that Broughton St. eatery and bar is allowed under Savannah’s alcohol ordinances to: A) admit those under 21 during late-night live music performances on the weekends (provided they ID them, and mark them with a wristband to help prevent them from accessing alcohol while on the premises), and/or B) even offer live music at all (either with or without a cover charge).
However, in reality, this battle is actually about something far greater. It’s fundamentally about what sort of quality of life some people in city government think Savannahians (and our visiting guests) should be allowed to enjoy. It’s about long-standing bitterness. It’s about a perception among many that some facets of our local society have been marginalized and unfairly demonized, while others have been given a free ride to do as they please.
It’s also in great part about race.
It’s about race even if some of the key protagonists in this silly, misguided witch hunt don’t even realize they are —as one gifted social commentator once opined— “only pawns in the game.”
Yes, there are all sorts of others issues at play here, including the very real —and serious— problem of underage drinking.
Yet, one cannot downplay or ignore what appears to be a boldfaced lack of understanding on the part of City Manager Michael Brown, Alderman Johnson, and perhaps others on Council about the realities of how the bar, restaurant and live entertainment businesses operate (and co-operate).
More than anything, this mess exists solely because one man with a chip on his shoulder —and the desire to prove a politically motivated point— chose to make an example out of what most any objective observer would say is an overwhelmingly respectable small business — both socially and legally.
According to Alderman Johnson, if a bona fide restaurant (which also legally serves alcohol to adults) decides to offer live entertainment to its patrons as well, and in doing so opts to make their space more conducive to such (say by installing a professional PA system, or covering the windows to improve the acoustics or “look” of the room, as has Locos —among plenty of other eateries in town), they are in fact “acting like a club” and in flagrant violation of an unwieldy ordinance which he interprets as drawing a distinct line between those two types of establishments — but which plenty of others, including myself read as specifically providing for such a thing.
That’s like saying SCAD is an Equestrian Center masquerading as a large private art college.
The owners of Locos tell me they “cannot be the poster child on this issue,” and nor should they be. But unfortunately, for now, they are. That’s because Alderman Johnson, who initially claimed all he wanted was for City staff to enforce existing laws “equally” and “across the board” is now backpedaling, saying there is no need to shut down all the other popular, safe, established restaurants around town that have doing either A or B for —in some cases— decades now.
He’s also floated the notion of demanding that some eateries be compelled to hire off-duty SPD officers to act as security when live entertainment is featured.
Yeah, like there’s a lot of gang-related activity surrounding Harry O’Donoghue’s gigs at Kevin Barry’s or cheesy 80s cover bands at Wild Wing’s. Gimme a break.
Speaking as a music journalist and professional musician who’s seen this town become a better place to live, work and visit in great part because of the growing live music scene (much of it centered around restaurants), I cannot stress enough that abridging or outlawing either A or B would be a convoluted step backward in so many respects, and viewed as an embarrassment by most forward thinkers.
Does the law need to be changed and/or clarified? Maybe. But that should only happen with copious input from the very people whose livelihoods depend on this.
Anything less is an insult to everyone.
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