IT'S IRONIC, and also oddly appropriate, that our annual College Student Guide comes out this week. This is the first issue we've published since the City of Savannah rolled out its controversial proposed revision of the bar and alcohol ordinance.
The proposed new law has been the talk of the town despite the best efforts of the City to bury the rollout—first by waiting to publicize it until late afternoon the Friday before Labor Day, then by scheduling the first public meeting on it less than one full business day later, the following Tuesday.
They didn’t want us to notice it maybe because the proposals don’t really address any current issues, and instead seem likely to close some businesses and put people out of work—while concentrating still more power and influence into the hands of big hotel and chain store developers downtown.
Our College Student Guide is more about lifestyle than academics, and the college lifestyle includes nightlife. Savannah has a robust nightlife and unique drinking culture, with one of the most liberal open container laws in the nation.
But our government has a schizophrenic relationship to Savannah’s favorite vice. Nowhere is this schizophrenia more apparent than with those aged 18-20 years old, i.e., the typical college student.
For example, most other cities don’t have Savannah’s civilized and tolerant tradition of to-go cups. But they do have all-ages venues. Savannah, for all intents and purposes, recognizes no such thing, not as the term is commonly recognized.
In Atlanta or Athens or Jacksonville and any number of other metro areas in and out of the region, there are venues which sell mostly alcohol, which also admit those under 21 to see the band(s) of the evening or whatever entertainment is offered.
The process is simple: The venue holding the all-ages event cards everybody, and those under 21 get a wristband or other signifier saying they can’t buy alcohol.
That’s it. Real rocket science. But Savannah can’t, or won’t, figure it out.
While our situation is great for the local house party scene, which has flourished in the absence of all-ages venues, I’m guessing it probably hasn’t helped keep alcohol out of the hands of underage drinkers—likely the opposite result in fact.
The City’s blind spot towards adults aged 18-20 years old is so thick that they’re not even acknowledged as legally adult.
The initial draft of the new law said anyone under 21 in any restaurant which serves alcohol after 10 p.m.—that’s a crap ton of restaurants!—would either have to leave as soon as the clock strikes ten, or have a “parent or legal guardian” handy.
So, a SCAD freshman or sophomore out for a meal with friends would get kicked out, unless mom and dad is hanging with them. As would a young Army Ranger based at Hunter, out for a bite after having, say one or two tours in Afghanistan under his belt.
(This brilliant idea is to replace the current “hybrid” law, another only-in-Savannah thing. It says a restaurant which serves mostly alcohol after a certain time is essentially a bar. Or something like that.)
City officials are quick to say they’ve already killed the 10 p.m. curfew, and we should all “just move on.” But the only reason they killed it—and we don’t really know it’s dead yet—is precisely because of the enormous pushback on social media when they thought public attention was elsewhere.
It’s disturbing that this ordinance was drafted in committee for a solid year and this preposterous provision remained intact.
The City claims one reason for the new ordinance is the law hasn’t been updated in 15 years. If after 15 years this is the best they can come up with, that’s pretty sad.
Any functioning adult who doesn’t live in a bubble could tell you how infeasible and unenforceable a 10 p.m. curfew would be in a major tourist destination known for its nightlife and cultural offerings.
The whole idea really calls into question the judgment of those crafting the ordinance, and by extension anything else in it.
Speaking of what else is in it: The City, to support the changes, rolled out a bunch of crime statistics, knowing crime is the other hot-button issue here besides alcohol.
Hey, did you know most of the trouble in downtown’s entertainment district tends to happen late on Friday and Saturday nights? Shocker, right?
Along with that breaking news, the City and Savannah/Chatham Police also said that 1) the vast majority of increased police calls on weekend nights do not involve underage drinkers, 2) a large number of police calls in the Historic District happen outside the bars after they let out at 3 a.m., and 3) it’s just a handful of bars that are a consistent problem for police.
So of course City leaders concluded from this that: 1) There needs to be more of a crackdown on underage drinking, and bar owners will remain almost 100 percent responsible, 2) bar owners will be required to provide additional security inside bars before last call at 3 a.m., at their expense, and 3) all bars will be punished collectively rather than targeting rogue establishments.
Not only that, but if a bar serves alcohol after midnight on weekends they have to get a separate Late Night License. The City claims that’s a benevolent move—since previously the only enforcement option was to revoke a liquor license entirely—but let’s face it: Taking away a downtown bar’s ability to serve drinks after midnight on a weekend will put them out of business anyway.
Attempting to put lipstick on this turd of a new law, the City is trumpeting their magnanimous decision to extend the to-go cup boundary south of Jones Street to include Forsyth Park, where everyone already uses to-go cups anyway during events.
While I certainly support that move—the only provision that makes sense—the rest of the proposed law is another in a long line of attempts to shake down the downtown bar industry for more fees and licenses, while the big hotel and high-dollar retail developers who want to flagrantly disregard Historic District guidelines continue to get their requests fast-tracked by City staff and approved by City Council directly.
So what can you do about it? If you’re a bar owner, organize. And fight it collectively. That’s the hard part, easier said than done.
If you’re a college student who will also have your lifestyle directly impacted by the new proposals, it’s a bit easier:
Register to vote. And then... Vote.
Voting is the one thing bureaucrats and politicians can’t take away from you.
And it’s the one thing that scares them.