If Charleston leaders get their way, no new bars will be allowed to open in the heart of the historic and expanding nightlife district for the next three years.
Mayor Joe Riley said that will give the city time to gather input from the community, and then come up with a fair plan to limit the number of establishments in the district that serve alcohol and expand the number of other kinds of businesses. But some members of the bar and restaurant industry continue to be wary of the city's efforts to limit business growth.
Riley said the city is not giving up on trying to find a solution to problems that arise when too many late-night revelers gather in a small area near residential neighborhoods. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "The city simply is looking for another way to deal with it, a better way, a more surgical way."
Riley, Police Chief Greg Mullen and Tim Keane, the city's planning director, in May proposed an ordinance that would create an "entertainment district overlay zone," which includes the Market area and some areas along East Bay Street, all of King Street and much of Meeting Street. It would have restricted some business activity within the zone, including prohibiting new businesses from serving alcohol after midnight.
The ordinance also would have prohibited many businesses within it from operating between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., including food stores, gas stations, restaurants, bars and other establishments that sell alcohol.
But many local restaurant and bar owners were outraged by the proposal, which they thought was unfair to their industry. And after a loud and sustained public outcry, city leaders decided to recommend the new, moratorium approach.
Riley said the city will ask the Planning Commission at its Aug. 20 meeting to disregard the original plan and instead approve the moratorium.
If the commission approves it, the moratorium likely would come before City Council for a vote in September.
Elliott Smith, a lawyer from BACE, a group that represents 18 local businesses that were opposed to the initial version of the ordinance, said he's taking a wait-and-see approach on this version. He hasn't yet seen a written draft of the revised ordinance, he said. But when he does, he will closely review it and consider the impact of any unintended consequences it might cause.
But, he said, the previous version would have changed the city's zoning, which would have been a permanent change. At least a moratorium has a definite end date. And, he said, "I think taking no action should be meaningfully considered."
Smith said he's part of the city's advisory group on the ordinance. City leaders have told him they would get his input on the language of the revised ordinance.
David McMillan, chairman of the board of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said he's pleased city leaders took industry feedback into consideration. But he needs more information on the new plan. "It needs to be thought through," he said.
James Walsh, a co-owner of Prohibition on upper King Street, said, "I wouldn't say a three-year moratorium is the answer, but it's better than a midnight closing."
He thinks the area will settle down on its own as new hotels and parking garages open. But it's important to remember that "the food and beverage industry put Charleston on the map," he said. "To cut that off would be a disaster."
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.