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Last call revisited

Cash-strapped Atlanta mulls later bar hours

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On Nov. 16, Councilman Kwanza Hall shook party-loving Atlantans out of a six-year slumber.

Without warning, Hall announced at a City Council meeting that he wanted the city's next mayor to study whether extending bar hours from 2:30 to 4 a.m. would increase revenue and spark the city's moribund – and once booming – nightlife scene.

Mayor Shirley Franklin inexplicably called it a "publicity stunt." Councilman Howard Shook, who chairs the committee that would weigh the proposal, said Hall's proposal would be "dead on arrival." Buckhead, Poncey-Highland and Castleberry Hill residents loudly opposed even looking at the numbers. Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, whose neighborhood effectively shuttered its rowdy bar district a few years back, warned in an e-mail to City Hall that "'experience' is a pretty good 'study' in itself, and we wish to voice strong opposition to consideration of increased bar operations."

But Hall's proposal reignited a longstanding community debate that several political candidates, including mayoral hopefuls, have said they'd be willing to examine once they take office on Jan. 11. The proposal aims to determine whether extending bar hours would add much-needed revenue. If so, the question becomes: Can the city strike a balance between improving the bottom line, placating neighbors wary of even the most anemic nightlife scene, and pleasing would-be partiers disappointed in how the scene has been gutted?

One possible solution would be to allow only the best-behaving bars to stay open late –and to pay the city for the privilege.

Alan Begner, a prominent Atlanta nightclub attorney, says the city should consider a new type of license – one he claims could bring the city millions of dollars and boost nightlife at the same time. It might even be palatable to neighbors, too.

By offering a "late-night" liquor license, new and existing bars would pay an extra $5,000 every year to keep pouring until 4 a.m. The city could use the cash to beef up police presence, crack down on noise and litter violators, and enforce other ordinances that bars would have a financial incentive to follow. Licenses would be issued only to "model citizen" bars – and would be revoked if decibel levels, crime or trash were to plague neighbors. It could be a win-win-win for bar owners, residents and the city, he says.

Other cities, such as London and Chicago, have approved late-night licenses. Michigan's Legislature is currently debating a statewide measure that would let local governments decide if bars could stay open until 4 a.m., provided the businesses pay a $1,500 license fee. The measure would generate an estimated $4.6 million for the state.

"It would be simple," Begner says. "If you're not a good steward of your license, you're subject to revocations, suspensions, or other disciplines that the License Review Board and mayor hand down all the time."

He adds: "Make them keep the sound down, the litter down, and the trouble down. It's doable."

Begner says he e-mailed Franklin and Council members about the idea approximately two years ago. But no one at City Hall sent him a reply.

The proposal is likely to have its detractors. Shook opposes extending bar hours, pointing to preliminary data that shows tax revenue actually increased 10 percent in the year after last call was rolled back – and that a disproportionate number of violent crimes had occurred between the later last call hours, compared to midnight to 2 a.m.

What's more, many residents, neighborhood reps and civic boosters have vehemently resisted the idea of extending bar hours – and have no intention of revisiting the six-year-old ordinance that rolled back last call to begin with.

In 2003, Buckhead residents fed up with after-hours rowdiness, bass-booming cruisers and a series of high-profile crimes in club parking lots successfully lobbied Council to roll back bar closing hours from 4 to 2:30 a.m. Despite a coalition of bar owners – who claimed that earlier closing hours would deprive the city of $150,000 in tax revenue, watering holes of $12.8 million in sales, and servers and bartenders of $2.9 million in tips – the measure passed.

Since then, bar owners have argued that the earlier cutoff times have cost them and the city precious revenue as party-goers flock to DeKalb County, where the spirits flow until 4 a.m. And late-night carousers say Atlanta, a self-branded "international" city, is now besmirched with a reputation as a sleepy town.

Many residents, on the other hand, say they're finally able to get a full night's rest.

The topic of beefing up balance sheets with alcohol tax revenue's been broached several times since 2003, most recently by Councilman Ceasar Mitchell, who in 2008 proposed charging bar owners an "impact fee" to stay open later. That money, Mitchell said at the time, could be earmarked to pay for public safety near participating bars.

During the recent municipal election season, several candidates proposed creating a "special entertainment district" that could serve booze until 4 a.m. But considering potential neighborhood opposition – and judging from the performance of Underground Atlanta, the state's only such district – some Council members are uneasy about the idea.

At a Nov. 23 public hearing called to discuss Hall's proposal, Chris Johnson, co-owner of the Standard Food and Spirits, said he thought bar owners would shine to the idea of a "special entertainment district" – provided their business was included within its boundaries.

Buckhead's Massell, who says he likes the laws as they are, suggests that the city instead look into allowing hotel bars to remain open. That could satisfy neighbors who complain of spillover noise and crime, while pleasing conventioneers who apparently are peeved about earlier bar closings.

But either of those solutions would leave some bar owners high and dry – at a time when they could really use a boost.

Longtime Atkins Park owner Warren Bruno, who helped lead the bar owner brigade against the 2:30 last call effort in 2003, says that if the city won't budge on last call times, Council should at least allow businesses to pour until 2:30 a.m. on Monday mornings. The current law, which forces bars to shut down Sunday at midnight, costs Bruno's Virginia-Highland establishment an estimated $100,000 every year.

Other bar owners who came out in droves to Hall's Nov. 23 meeting complained to Council members that the earlier last call painfully hacked into the hours during which they could earn revenue. That, coupled with the city's licensing fees and by-the-drink taxes, has made running a nightclub in Atlanta an unduly difficult business, they said.

Regardless of whether Council approves Hall's study, the issue won't be going away. After the Nov. 23 public hearing, Hall told reporters, "It's gonna be bad next year for revenues." City Hall insiders say tremendous write-downs on commercial real-estate property values are set to take effect, which means less cash for the city. To keep things a-hummin' and the books balanced, funds will have to be found somewhere – perhaps at the bottom of a 3 a.m. pint.

UPDATE: On Dec. 2, an Atlanta City Council committee voted to hold Hall's proposal to study later bar hours. Hall plans to re-introduce the legislation next year.

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