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11 bars in Columbia's Five Points could close if they lose liquor licenses over complaints

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Five Points night lined up 5 Points neon sign (copy)

Crowds fill the Five Points sidewalks at night. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier. 

COLUMBIA — Almost all the bars in Five Points known for catering to college students, including prominent nightspots as Pavlov's and Breakers Live, could close if they can't win legal battles over neighborhood complaints to keep their liquor licenses.

The S.C. Department of Revenue has declined to renew licenses for 11 of 15 bars in the district known as hangouts for University of South Carolina students. Bars with existing licenses can remain open while appeals proceed. 

Neighbors have stepped up complaints against Five Points bars in recent years over frequent intrusion by drunk patrons, some of whom are underage. USC has joined the fight, filing complaints against four of the establishments. At least five bars in Five Points have closed as a result of pressure mounted by neighbors and the college since 2019.

Efforts to find common ground between the neighbors and Five Points have made little progress, said Steve Cook, owner of Saluda's restaurant and chairman of the Five Points Association.

Neighbors are frustrated and using the liquor license process as their avenue to complain, while bar owners feel victimized for operating as they have successfully for years, Cook said.

"It's hard not to think that the process is being exploited a bit," Cook said. 

Liquor licenses were due for renewal with the state revenue agency in August. The bars that drew objections were Moosehead Saloon, Pavlov’s, The Cotton Gin, The Bird Dog, Murphy’s Law, 5 Points Saloon, Rooftop Bar and Lounge, Breakers Bar and Lounge, Breakers Live, Pinch and Taneyhill's Group Therapy.

Group Therapy, owned by former USC star quarterback Steve Taneyhill, survived a fight last year over its license. 

If the Revenue Department receives what it deems a legitimately filed neighborhood complaint, the agency cannot issue the license and must send the dispute into the courts, according to Columbia attorney Joe McCullough, who represents several of Five Points bars.

One main reason for the dispute, Cook said, is the state law that lumps bars under the same laws as restaurants, including a requirement for serving food.

Part of the fight will likely come down to how much food the bars sell. Establishments with liquor licenses are supposed to meet state minimum requirements for food service.  

The bars that were able to get their licenses renewed are known for their food service, including Jake's on Devine and Bar None.

"COVID has certainly shown the need to separate bars from restaurants," Cook said.

Moosehead Saloon and Pavlov's are relatively far along in the appeals process among the current crop of cases, according to McCullough, who represents Pavlov's. Moosehead will have its case heard in S.C. administrative law court in April. 

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USC joined the group of neighbors in objecting to the renewals of four bars: Pavlov's, Moosehead Saloon, Rooftop and 5 Points Saloon, according to university spokesman Jeff Stensland.

USC in the past also filed objections to other renewals, including to Group Therapy, which won its court appeal, and sports bar Cover 3, which closed.

The university's objections reflect concern over bars marketing promotional deals that promote risky drinking, underage customers getting served there and a lack of food service, Stensland said. 

"We are not against all bars in Five Points; but if underage, late-night drinking is the area’s primary activity, that endangers our students, places undue burdens on law enforcement and diminishes the quality of life for nearby residents," Stensland said.

The complaint against Pavlov's includes the objections from USC and some nearby neighbors but also police reports about underage customers being served at the bar. According to the Revenue Department finding, Columbia police arrested 12 people on charges of underage drinking inside Pavlov's from 2018 through 2020.

During the same period, 17 arrests for underage drinking were made at Moosehead, according to Revenue's finding on that bar. 

Pavlov's also was only concerned about rigorous ID enforcement when police were nearby, the Revenue Department complaint quotes a former bouncer at the bar as saying. The former employee discussed the bar's policy in 2020 as part of a civil lawsuit over injuries suffered by a customer being removed from the bar. 

McCullough, Pavlov's attorney, called the allegation the claim of a disgruntled employee who was dismissed for actions that would get the bar sued. 

Pavlov's shares a problem with many bars in Columbia and nationwide, according to McCullough: the high quality of the current generation of fake IDs that young people can buy. 

Fake IDs are almost impossible to spot by eye and even can fool some scanners, McCullough said. "They can create some damn good fake IDs."

Moosehead regularly checks IDs at the door, and the underage violations there are a result of fake IDs, said the saloon's attorney, John Alphin.

The two adjacent Breakers bars recently were sold and are operating under a 120-day grace period given to new owners, said McCullough, who also represents them. Objections to conduct that occurred under its previous owners should not prevent the new ownership from taking over and operating it properly, he said.

Efforts to reach representatives from other Five Points bars that could lose their liquor licenses were not successful Feb. 8.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikefittsat140

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