Not a tent city

by Brian Clarey

1961 was a long time ago in Greensboro. The city was still reeling from the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-in that would eventually change history. There was no airport, no mall and lots of unused land.

Things have changed on almost every front. But last week the city of Greensboro issued a letter to business owners citing a forgotten piece of municipal code that dates back to 1961 concerning something that has become commonplace in the ensuing years: tents.

City Ordinance Section 6-24 applies specifically to the use of tents and “similar temporary structure[s]” within city limits, saying, among other things, that tents cannot stand for more than 60 days in a row and are subject to an intervening 30-day period, that said tents must not have people under them after 10 p.m. in residential and institutional areas, and that tents cannot be erected in residential neighborhoods without consent from 100 percent of the residents.

You don’t think about tents much, unless your daughter is getting married in the backyard or a visiting sheik is planning an extended stay on your property. But tents are big business — on both the supply and demand sides. Businesses like bars and restaurants put them up to increase their covered floor space. Outdoor festivals, fairs and concerts use them for performances and vending. Colleges have them for special events like homecoming. The Wyndham Championship uses dozens of tents and temporary structures, and the Greensboro Coliseum uses them for seasonal events. Funeral homes, car lots, churches, fireworks peddlers, hot dog salesmen, craft merchants and street marketers have all come to rely on temporary structures to increase — and sometimes create — business opportunities.

And then there’s Joe Hodgin, owner of Happy Rentz in Greensboro, who rents tents for special occasions and long-term business propositions both. He says enforcement of the old ordinance will cost him a sizable chunk of what has become a pillar of his business.

“In the 1980s there was only A-1 Rentals and myself,” he says. “We started purchasing tents [for rental] in the late ’80s, little 15-by-15 ones. Before then there was literally no such thing in this area as far as partytent rentals.”

It seems the code was written for a bygone era, which begs the ques tion as to why it is now being enforced.

Downtown bar owners affected by the enforcement of this existing ordinance have their own ideas about the genesis of this movement, but Greensboro’s Director of Engineering and Inspections Butch Simmons says it was he who first noticed the aberration between code and reality after David Jones retired from the department late last year.

“We issued a tent permit I guess maybe a month ago and I noticed they out the wrong dates on it, for one of the restaurants downtown, I forget which one,” Simmons says. “I think the reason [the code went unenforced for so long] is because the building code is different and inspections was going by that — they probably didn’t know that existed on our code of ordinances, but the code is there and we have to enforce it.”

More letters, he says, will be going out this week to anyone who has requested a tent permit from the city.

“We’re going through everyone in the whole city,” he says. “We think there’s three or four in downtown, I’m not exactly sure.”

It is also unclear what public good is being advanced by the resurrected code.

Most problematic for anyone hoping to entertain under a tent in a residential area is the stipulation that 100 percent of the residents must sign off on the permit, giving one person the power to shut down an event, a party space or an ongoing business venture. Simmons says that much of downtown is considered residential because of developments like Center Pointe and CityView, and acknowledges that 100 percent consent might be difficult to obtain.

“If the folks downtown are using these,” he says, “probably the way to go is ask for a change in the ordinance, but right now the ordinance is what it is. It’s an ordinance and we have to enforce it.”

Kenny Efird, owner of Greene Street Club, got his letter last week.

He’s had a tent on the roof of his club since he renovated it six years ago, leaving it up all winter so club patrons can enjoy the rooftop lounge in inclement weather. He’ll be taking it down this week.

“I’m sick about it,” he says. “I really don’t know what to tell my people. I have to decide what shifts to cut.”

At Happy Rentz, manager Scott Halstead is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“[Tents] are a portion of our business,” he says. “We’re trying to understand this. We want to meet with the city to understand how it does affect us, because right now we don’t really know.”