Barry Saunders

Raleigh council wises up – then eases up – on downtown crackdown: Saunders

Patrons drink on the front sidewalk patio at The Anchor Bar in August in downtown Raleigh. The city council on Tuesday scrapped rules requiring businesses to erect above-ground barriers like stanchions around outdoor dining areas.
Patrons drink on the front sidewalk patio at The Anchor Bar in August in downtown Raleigh. The city council on Tuesday scrapped rules requiring businesses to erect above-ground barriers like stanchions around outdoor dining areas. The News and Observer

Getting a politician to admit that she or he was wrong is as unusual as getting my buddy and professional wrassler The Big Schwanz to admit that he won only by gouging out his opponent’s eye with a foreign object pulled from his tights when the referee’s back was turned.

That’s what the Raleigh City Council did this week.

Naw, it didn’t gouge out the Masked Marvel’s eye. What the council did, though, was amend its own rules governing downtown drinking establishments after having initially taken a hard line against them.

Apparently fearing that Raleigh was in danger of losing its Mayberryish charm and of becoming – Egads! – cosmopolitan, the council last year adopted rules that seemed designed to drag the city back to those holy, hokey, halcyon days of yore, when Aunt Bee could walk the streets at midnight without encountering raucousness.

The council’s 5-3 vote imposing restrictions was ostensibly intended to prevent outside alcohol swillers from impeding pedestrians or turning downtown into a college male dorm on weekends. What it seemed intent upon ensuring, though, was there was no surfeit of fun downtown: a curfew halting alcohol sales at 1 a.m. on weekends and midnight through the week, confining outside drinking areas to postage-stamp-size areas in front of establishments, and requiring those establishments to erect above-ground barriers – you know, the kind you erect when you want to stop a terrorist attack or tank.

Downtown Durham used to have them, and boy, did they ugly up a place.

Raleigh’s council came down so hard last year that nobody would’ve been surprised had it voted to erect walls around outside drinking areas so that the pure-at-heart teetotalers among us wouldn’t have to witness revelers taking a nip or sip or even nibbling a nacho outside.

Nobody wants to see Raleigh turn into Drunk Town, U.S.A., as opponents of downtown revelry advertised it would, but the downtown business owners and patrons to whom I spoke at the time recalled only isolated or anecdotal evidence of those kinds of excesses.

Unforgettable is the comment last year by Mayor Nancy McFarlane in supporting the crackdown. “It’s not pleasant on Sunday morning,” Mayor McFarlane said, “when people are coming downtown and there’s vomit and trash.”

Vomit & Trash? Wasn’t that John Cougar Mellencamp’s first band?

Nobody wants to see Raleigh turn into Drunk Town, U.S.A., as opponents of downtown revelry advertised it would, but the downtown business owners and patrons to whom I spoke at the time recalled only isolated or anecdotal evidence of those kinds of excesses.

Zack Medford, owner of Paddy O’Beers, said the rules put in place by the council “had the opposite effect of ‘classing the joint up.’” It unclassed it, and, he said, “It made the sidewalks more cluttered.”

As a frequent habitue of downtown restaurants and drinking establishments – I occasionally stop by one for an afternoon restorative after escaping the salt mines – I have never seen any of the egregious examples cited by supporters of the original bill. I do know that downtown drinking establishments are pretty near liquid gold mines for their owners, and it behooves them to ensure that patrons are following the rules by not kicking up a fuss or upchucking on downtown sidewalks.

When downtown bars and restaurants started complaining that the council’s puritanical impulse was proving to be an impediment to profits, the only recourse a wise council had was to reevaluate its action. Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days – 15 years or so ago – when downtown after dark and on weekends was a gloomy, forlorn place.

Medford raised a figurative glass to the council for reconsidering its initial vote. “When they originally made their decision, they didn’t expect as much pushback” from business owners, he said. “They didn’t expect us to stay engaged as long as we did. ... We have nice weather nine months out of the year, and people want to sit out and drink with their friends.”

I’ll drink to that – and to the council.

The alacrity with which the council moved to leaven its initial overkill proves one thing: money talks.

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