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GROWING PAINS

MANAGING NIGHTLIFE IN DOWNTOWN WINSTON-SALEM

At 2 a.m. on any given weekend morning after an evening of imbibing cheap light beers, heavy craft beers, and a plethora of liquor-mixed cocktails, downtown Winston-Salem transforms into a hectic collage of college-aged coeds and twentysomethings hunting for rides, scrambling for car keys, and, sometimes, searching for trouble.

On April 19, a fight broke out near the intersection of Cherry Street and W. Fourth Street. Fights in downtown districts of any given city are not a new thing, nor are they even breaking news, but in downtown Winston-Salem, a city working to revitalize its image to keep up with the rapid growth occurring on the south side of downtown where the Innovation Quarter is stealing the spotlight, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Initially, there were only four men charged with affray and disorderly conduct; Bryan Patrick Mcgee, 20; Joshua Wilson Hensley, 26; Seth Emilio Morgan, 23; Michael Patrick Huffman, 22; and a few days following the ordeal, Ryan Gill Brooks, 21.

The video, which has since gone viral thanks to local and national outlets (this publication included) captured a violent brawl that moved down the street from near where Camino Bakery sits to an area near the patio of Tate’s Craft Cocktails.

John Tate, owner and operator of Tate’s Craft Cocktails and The Honey Pot, which sits directly next to the bar, recalls the fight, but did not witness the escalation, just one of the final blows that can be seen on the video.

“I walked outside and this dude was getting his head stomped,” he said. “It was eight feet away, and I had employees that wanted to break it up.” In his right as a small business owner, which holds him liable for the safety of his employees on his property while they are on the clock, he told them that he could not let them go out there.

Police officers were quick to arrive on the scene, and thanks to this generation’s ability to film, rather than help, the fight was documented immediately and posted to the Internet.

Now, there are several different types of questions this situation raises as to who is responsible, who is liable, and who should be held accountable. And what can be done moving forward to continue growing in the best way possible?

A quick walk through downtown and you’ll see security cameras on street corners which capture, some in high-definition such as those used in and around Bull’s Tavern, all the events as they unfold throughout an evening. These are put in place, proactively, by bar owners who are not only looking out for their own staff and investment, but that of the other businesses in the area. This is one way that cooperation among business owners is leading the way in pushing Winston-Salem to become a destination vacation spot, which is great for business.

But does fall-out from a fight become the bar owners responsibility?

Should police presence be increasingly prevalent in downtown to monitor and hopefully deter these types of incidents?

At what point does increased security make apparent the idea of potential threats?

How can Winston-Salem’s downtown district continue growing with the increasing population without becoming a city that is unattractive for young people and transplants ?

One way the city has worked to maintain order downtown is keep a ready fleet of police officers on bicycles patrolling the area. The bicycle division, which has an office located 414 N. Cherry street across from the Marriott, has been peddling around town since the early ‘90s when it switched from horses to bikes.

“Naturally, when you have a lot of people there tends to be… there is always the potential for trouble,” said Captain Natoshia James, District One Commander. “We try to keep officers present and visible downtown in hopes to deter crime.”

She added that although downtown has a spotlight right now, there are very similar problems out in the community that regular beat officers deal with, but because there are so many public facilities downtown there is also the draw for a variety of people to congregate, which can lead to issues.

Capt. James also acknowledged that although there are uniformed, on-duty police officers present, and often watching the packed bars and venues from a distance, altercations occur even in their presence.

“Perhaps because we have that presence there is less crime happening downtown,” she added.

However, even with the regular beat patrol officers and the bicycle division, the Winston-Salem Police Department reports that between July 2013 and the present, there have been 410 simple assaults, 570 trespassing violations, 220 acts of vandalism, 434 disorderly conducts and 162 charges of communicating threats. Capt. James did say that although those statistics may be correct, the footprint of “downtown” includes much more than Fourth Street and Trade Street where patrons typically venture for the bars and venues.

The bicycle division, which supplements the regular patrolling beat officers of the downtown area, covers nearly everything north of Business 40, west of U.S. 52 all the way up to Broad Street and over to Northwest Boulevard, and will typically see bicycle patrol officers logging more than 20 miles per shift.

Sergeant Kevin Bowers, who works in the office located on Cherry Street, did not reveal the times where bike patrol was not on the streets, but did say that officers are visible up to 21 hours per day, again, supplementing the round-the-clock patrols of police cruisers.

“With their presence and them being established, they are familiar, and they can identify people who don’t belong in the event there is trouble,” Sgt. Bower said. He added that because there is not a “barrier” (i.e. a window of a car) between the officers and the downtown patrons, people feel more comfortable approaching officers in the event there is trouble.

But one of those things doesn’t work: Who doesn’t belong downtown?

Tensions were high on Fourth Street when Status Nightclub and Lounge was in operation – it has since closed down – because of altercations and fights that often broke out following the end of the night.

Status opened in the summer of 2013 and closed its doors in January earlier this year.

(For what it’s worth, Winston-Salem does not have the same nightlife as a lot of cities in its offering of dance clubs. That’s not to say people in Winston- Salem don’t enjoy dancing, it’s just that dance clubs seem to never make it past the infant stage.)

So, again, who doesn’t belong downtown? “How do you assure safety? How do you plan for people?” Jim Peters, president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI), rhetorically asked.

“As districts evolve with mixed-used development, you now have crowds of people – aging millenials, then you have baby boomers – you now have this coexistence of some who socialize before 10 p.m. and some who do it after (10 p.m.),” he said.

RHI is a California-based non-profit organization that assists and advises businesses and communities in the planning of safe and vibrant social spaces.

Their work has benefitted cities all across the United States, including some basic advising in downtown Greensboro roughly five years ago.

“We’ve worked in Columbia, South Carolina, Mobile, Alabama, and even Charleston, South Carolina, and we always hear ‘it’s the type of music they play,’ which is another way of saying ‘we don’t want these types of people,’” Peters said.

Wingz & Spiritz Sports Bar, which is a neighbor of Tate’s Craft Cocktails, plays a lot of rap music. However, there is a connotation associated with rap music that it attracts a certain type of person, race irrelevant nor acknowledged, but that those crowds typically become more rowdy in the late night hours.

Souphab Daoheang, owner and operator of Wingz & Spiritz, is quick to shoot down this idea, as if he’s confronted it before.

“Everyone has a different demographic,” Daoheang said. “When people get drunk and intoxicated – black or white, rich or poor, old or young, educated or uneducated – there can be fights. Period.”

Daoheang maintains that he keeps two uniformed off-duty police officers at his club to “flex” on patrons who might be getting rowdy and uncontrollable. He also said he has four security guards who help keep the peace.

“The bar takes full responsibility for every single customer. If you know you are going to have a sell-out crowd, hire enough security to show presence,” he said.

His idea is that if you want longevity in your business, and that of downtown, you must be willing sacrifice your bottom line – your profits – at the expense of security so that people can feel safe.

Peters asserts that responsibility of security falls on the business, but that the solution does come from hiring police officers in the off-duty capacity to be authorized to use police force. He claims that you are allowing bar owners to feel as though they bought protection, which can lead to varying types of conflicts of interest down the road.

“The people working in uniforms convey an impression for people – when you want to get older and mature clientele and they come downtown and see uniformed police officers, that impression is not ‘this is a safe place to be,’” Peters said.

Peters presses the idea of education and proper training for staff and security to handle crowds of all types.

In 2014, a wall was put in place between Tate’s Craft Cocktails and Wingz & Spiritz to prevent noise-bleed between the two locations. Daoheang claimed it had to do with the difference in clientele, according to a 2014 article in The Chronicle. That wall has since been taken down.

But yet again, the problem, albeit the solution, is not that downtown business owners need to deal in race relations as much as they need to work together, something Tate is hoping will occur sooner than later.

“There is not a public forum where nightlife (business) owners and operators can address the public or the stakeholders of downtown,” Tate said. “There is not a strong organization or group of people who are just nightlife owners who sit down and put everything on the table.”

The Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership has been but one crucial element in working with downtown to maintain safety, and vibrancy.

Jason Thiel, President of DWSP, concludes that downtown is very safe, and that it is because of the open-door policy it maintains with stakeholders and the public in conversations surrounding the area as it grows into the next iteration of Winston-Salem.

“You’ve got a growing inventory of people living downtown, and a growing inventory of people doing things downtown, be it entertainment, working…” Thiel said. “In this vibrancy there is growth.”

He also said that this growth, which can be seen throughout parts of all of Winston-Salem, attributes itself to more people living more densely in a smaller location.

“There will be hiccups along the road, but they are all friction to the greater good,” he added.

The DWSP played a significant role in working for the entertainment district of downtown, which Thiel believes to be very progressive. This entertainment district includes The Garage, Ziggy’s, and much of the Trade Street art galleries, bars and restaurants.

“There are many examples of people who live downtown who are looking for peace and quiet and that comes into conflict with vibrancy and music venues and outdoor events,” Thiel said. “There are always going to be people who aren’t happy with the solution, but what I’ve found is that there is always a middle ground.”

Tate sees downtown as much more than just his bar, as does Daoheang, because he interacts with so many of the owners on a daily basis.

“I’m down here the majority of my life, so I take for granted how people travel to come here. We have to market ourselves as a geographic place where people come to enjoy themselves. There are a lot of places people could go spend their money and time,” Tate said.

The overarching issue here is not really even safety then, but managing growth in a city with acceptable issues and confronting those issues as they occur, in the moment, with directness and proactivity.

“We spend a lot of time communicating with folks downtown,” Thiel said. “I am always open to new ideas to get feedback from people.”

Thiel said that the DWSP holds a monthly meeting to speak with stakeholders in downtown to address the problems, but that there is not currently an open public forum. He added that his door is always open, his phone is always on, and he’s eager and willing to speak with anyone who has concerns.

Bar owners, small business owners, and other stakeholders are often the best conduits of information since they are receiving direct feedback from clientele as it happens. And although there are many layers and levels of communication, the concerns seem to be reaching the right people and the problems are getting addressed.

Issues along Fourth Street, as mentioned by both Capt. James and Thiel, are fewer and farther between than in the past, and the growth that’s hit Winston- Salem in the last decade has been generally accepted by the diverse population that inhabits downtown.

Safe communities are good for business. That’s just a fact. Education, compliance and force working within the entire machine – licensing, policing, enforcement, accountability, conversation – are all pushing toward the greater good of what Winston- Salem can, and is projected to become. The momentum gained in the past few years is steady. Events such as those that occurred in the early hours of April 19 are, as Thiel said, but mere hiccups in that trajectory.

“You can keep people out, but at the end of the day, to me, it’s about keeping people coming downtown and making sure we are projecting a good image,” Tate concluded. “And even beyond the image, mak- ing sure it’s a safe place to come and have a good night.” !

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