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W-S nightlife coalition seeks middle ground with city

by Amy Kingsley

“We’re still the underdogs in this fight.”

So said Kim Lawson, who owns the Garage with her husband, Richard Emmett, on Feb. 8.

It had been almost a year since the night late last February when Sgt. Howard Plouff, a veteran of the Winston-Salem Police Department, was killed outside the Red Rooster. His death, and a shooting a few months later at the Rubber Soul on Burke Street, inspired the city council to tackle blossoming nightclub violence. What they came up with in August was a draft set of rules that required tight security, penalized unsafe clubs with closure and compelled promoters to submit events for city approval.

Since then, Emmett and Lawson have led an opposition coalition of musicians, promoters and club owners who argue that the ordinance would stifle live music. Now their organization has a name: the Winston-Salem Music and Nightlife Association. They also have a petition that’s been circulating on the internet and includes more than 700 signatures.

“We are very supportive of working with the city,” Emmett said. “There were two unfortunate incidents, but we don’t feel that this is the right solution. We are for working with the city on a voluntary basis.”

The Nightlife Association held a voluntary violence reduction seminar on Feb. 5, Emmett said. Representatives from 20 clubs participated in the program, an improvement over the handful who attended the first seminar last fall.

The members are making a point of working with the city. They hope the city will return the favor.

After the city submitted its first draft of the nightlife ordinance, club owners like Emmett and Lawson weighed in. They criticized a definition of “promoter” so broad it encompassed practically any band that books its own shows, and the requirement that off-duty police officers be posted to events.

Council members responded by tweaking the definitions of promoters and by striking the security requirements for clubs that participate in violence reduction training. But Emmett said he’s still queasy about the nebulous way unsafe clubs are defined and the requirement that club owners and promoters mind littering and violence on streets adjacent to their establishment.

Keith Murphy isn’t a club owner or a musician. He describes himself as “one of the Garage’s angels.” He was one of a group of regulars who helped the Garage weather its first encounter with city inspectors, when the club almost closed because it didn’t conform to fire code.

He’s spent the last several months reading nightlife ordinances in cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Raleigh. On Jan. 31, he sent a letter to City Manager Lee Garrity and members of the Winston-Salem City Council.

Murphy raised several concerns: vague wording, lack of due process, stiff penalties, restaurant exemptions and impact on live music venues. He footnoted each point meticulously.

“The letter was really intended to be an eye-opener,” Murphy said. “We are not against closing some bad places down. We want the police to be able to do their jobs, but it needs to be tempered.”

In the course of his research, Murphy found that the Winston-Salem ordinance took the harshest elements from other cities’ ordinances. Punishment in the proposed Winston-Salem ordinance begins with a three-day suspension of the business license. In other cities, they increase from warnings through fines and temporary closings before slamming the club doors.

And the problem, he said, with enforcing such a strict ordinance is that the proposed ordinance doesn’t include much recourse for club owners. The city manager can hear an appeal, but formal rules of evidence wouldn’t apply, and the manager could cut the hearing short.

“The bottom line is that we’re not against the ordinance,” Murphy said. “But there has to be due process in it.”

Murphy said the nightlife association hopes to have 2,000 signatures on the petition by the March meeting of the city’s Public Safety Committee. Murphy and Emmett said they hope the city will take their concerns into account. And they hope that with the backing of the association, their voice will be louder.

“The city better be careful,” Emmett said. “They don’t think it’s going to have an effect on nightlife, but it’s already had a chilling affect on anyone who’s even thinking of opening a club in this city.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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