Winston-Salem club owners fight nightlife proposal
When Richard Emmett heard that Winston-Salem police Sgt. Howard Plouff had been killed at a hip-hop show in February, the club owner had a hunch the city might take a harder look at establishments like his. Emmett, who, along with his wife, owns the Garage in downtown Winston-Salem, is quick to pledge his support for the police. “We’ve got a downtown bicycle patrol and they’re great,” he said. “They are ambassadors for the city. I’m friends with a lot of police officers.” He said he was shocked when he heard about Plouff, who died on Feb. 23 after a brawl inside the Red Rooster, a country bar, spilled into the parking lot. The off-duty deputies working security called for police backup, and Plouff responded with several other officers. After one of the bouncers fired his gun into the air, some of the fighters retrieved their own firearms. In the ensuing mayhem, Plouff, a 17-year veteran, was shot in the head; he died 21 hours later. Emmett spoke in a rusty baritone, his vocal cords coarsened by years of shouting over various smoky dins. Inside Triad Stage, where Emmett has spent the last month overseeing performances for the EMF Fringe series, there was no din, just the tinkling tuning of the Steep Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band. Recently Emmett has been raising his voice in Winston-Salem City Hall, where he’s been protesting proposed revisions to the nightlife ordinance developed in the wake of Plouff’s murder. The city wants to require some clubs and promoters to hire extra security for events, submit plans to the police and work more closely with law enforcement. Emmett has argued that some of the definitions are so broad and the requirements so expensive that ratification of the ordinance would amount to a death knell for the city’s nightlife. More immediately, Emmett said, the ordinance, if passed in its current form, would mean the end of his club. The Garage and downtown Winston-Salem both grew up during the same five years around the turn of the last century. Emmett opened the Garage in 1999, mostly as a place to hold small shows and throw parties for his friends. Back then he was promoting out-of-town gigs for Tim Easton, David Vai, Peter May, Joe Robinson and Rhodie Ray. “At the time I was wondering what the point was of getting them shows outside of town when there wasn’t anywhere in Winston-Salem for them to play,” Emmett said. Before the Garage opened, the younger crowd gravitated toward the Horse’s Mouth Coffee Shop, the only late-night establishment downtown, and the fledgling arts collective known as the Werehouse. “You could walk down the middle of Fourth Street,” he said. “Nothing was happening.” The first two years were a honeymoon, Emmett said. The club wasn’t making any money, but the beginnings of downtown’s cultural revitalization stirred inside its concrete walls. Then the honeymoon ended. The city declared the Garage an unsafe building and Alcohol Law Enforcement suspended the bar’s liquor license. The community that cropped up around the club rallied and, several renovations, inspections and permit appeals later, the club reopened. “So many people in the community supported us,” Emmett said. “They wouldn’t let us close.” Emmett and his wife assumed a lot of debt during the renovation, and they just started turning a profit this year. The blocks adjoining their building thrived, too. Upscale eateries, art galleries and private clubs appeared, drawing the stiletto crowd toward the center of the city. The council had a hand in supporting the comeback, which they encouraged with generous loans and protected with increased police patrols. But the growth of downtown Winston-Salem has not been painless. This last year has been a particularly difficult one. In addition to Plouff’s death, a customer at the Paper Moon, a strip club, was killed during a robbery, and three people at the Rubber Soul on Burke Street were injured in a shooting. The Rubber Soul closed last month. The Winston-Salem Public Safety Committee started revising the ordinance after Plouff’s death, said Councilman Dan Besse. Violence at clubs had been a problem for years, he said, and the city set about trying to figure out how to curb it. “The characteristics of some of these buildings make them more prone to violence,” Besse said. “One of those is size. When a club is big enough to handle several hundred customers, and when crowds that size mix with alcohol, sometimes you get violence.” The proposed ordinance would require club owners to participate in the police department’s violence reduction program. If a venue has a history of violence or if its owners refuse to participate in the program, the city would require it to staff events with three off-duty police officers for the first 100 customers. More security would be required for every additional 100 customers. “One of the things that has been most disappointing is the way the opposition, led by Mr. Emmett, has been so categorical in nature,” Besse said. “Their argument has basically been, ‘We don’t need to be regulated, go away.'” At the most recent meeting of the public safety committee, Emmett and others opposed to the ordinance revision marched toward City Hall waving signs. They crowded the meeting room, and several made public comments. Emmett worried that the definition of a promoter would be broad enough to encompass bands that set up their own shows and nonprofits holding benefits. The proposed ordinance would erect a number of hurdles for promoters, including the need to hire extra security. The proposal does not define what constitutes an unsafe venue, Emmett said. “If there is a fight in our club, can police say it’s an unsafe venue?” he asked. The proposed ordinance would also authorize the police the shut down a club for 24 hours in the event of an emergency. What would constitute an emergency is not explained. “I think everybody has been making their own assumptions about what that would mean in practice,” Besse said. “To some folks it has clearly been read in their minds to mean an arbitrary authority that could be used to censor them.” Besse said nothing in the ordinance gives the city the right to regulate the content of performances, the ordinance would only require promoters to submit plans to the city so the police can staff accordingly. Bill Stevens, a member of the hip-hop group Solos Unit, said the violence and the ordinance proposal have already had a chilling affect on the music scene. After the Red Rooster shooting, some club owners refused to book his band. “Now, as if it hasn’t already become harder to make money here, it just feels like the city of Winston-Salem is fighting against live music and hip hop,” Stevens said. Solos Unit formed at weekly open mic nights at the Rubber Soul. Declining audiences and that club’s closure has forced the band to play more out-of-town shows, Stevens said. If the band could make more money playing in Winston-Salem, they would. “I love this town,” he said. “I’ve been in and out of this town my whole life. You can live very comfortably in this town for relatively little money. It’s the perfect little town.” Molly Leight, another member of the Winston-Salem City Council, said the proposed ordinance has spawned a lot of misinformation. “A lot of people who spoke to the public safety committee were talking about how they couldn’t afford the security,” she said. “But that is only for the clubs where there are problems. Most of the clubs are not going to be affected in the least.” Both Leight and Besse stressed that the ordinance is in the draft phase and said the committee would define the vague language before presenting it to the full council. The city council members are not the only ones accusing the other side of overreaction. Emmett is unconvinced that the police should be targeting clubs. He said the increase in violent activity is just a byproduct of the overall growth of the city’s nightlife. Clubs are being unfairly targeted, he said, even though other businesses also attract crime. “The bank by the West End just got robbed for like the tenth time,” he said. “Do they have to provide extra security?” Besse said the city has a responsibility to keep the patrons at bars and clubs as safe as possible. “There are problem spots in Winston-Salem just like there are in other cities,” he said. “Doing nothing is not an option.” Emmett said if the ordinance passes, and if he becomes subject to the security requirements, he will probably have to close the Garage. “My wife and I have been doing this for a long time,” he said. “My regular job is with the children’s theater. The Garage is really a labor of love. It’s been a wonderful project to work on, but it might be nice not to have to worry about it anymore.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.