Cover Story

Bar Fight

by Walter Pierce

Downtown Lafayette bar owners cry foul as city-parish government ups the ante and forces their hand

Photo by Isabel LaSala

Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009
Written by Walter Pierce

"I'm responsible for what goes on inside of my building. I'm kind of paying attention to what goes on inside of my bar. The streets of Lafayette are the responsibility of Lafayette City Police officers." Close-cropped and wiry with work-rough hands, Marley's owner Andrew Monceaux can barely contain his frustration, which will spill over two or three times before the interview concludes. He is seated with George Favaloro of Nite Town and Robert Oja of Karma in the conference room at The Independent Weekly on Jefferson Street downtown, grousing about Lafayette Police, Lafayette Consolidated Government, and a deal gone sour after just nine months. A few hours before, Monceaux, Favaloro, Oja and several other downtown bar owners met to talk business, or, more properly, they say, to talk not going out of business. They've all received the letter from Police Chief Jim Craft informing them that the monthly fee, or levy, they pay to cover overtime for a police security detail Thursday through Saturday nights is going up. Way up. And they agreed as a group to hold firm - to pay what they've been paying, even though the ordinance to which they're subject specifies penalties for late payment and even suspension of those precious liquor licenses. According to Craft, about half of the 17 bars on LCG's fee schedule have already begun paying at the increased rate.

Most of the bars paying the levy are clustered on the 300 and 400 blocks of Jefferson Street between Congress and Cypress, beyond which downtown Lafayette dissipates into a seedy amalgam of broken glass and broken men. On a typical Saturday night thousands of mostly young and often rowdy bar hoppers turn Jefferson into Bourbon Street West. The vagrants panhandle. Opportunistic crooks prowl the perimeter, waiting for a score to come stumbling along. The deal struck last February between the bars and LCG requires the bars collectively to pay $168,900 to City Hall per year - half the cost of the security detail. Each bar's share is based on its occupancy; Karma, the largest with a capacity of 1,307, pays five times more than the 240-head Green Room across the street. But in the letter, Craft says that's not enough.

"It was determined that significant increases in staffing would be necessary in order to provide for adequate safety and security," Craft writes in the Nov. 11 letter to the bar owners. He cites three factors in justifying the higher fee: increasing crowd sizes, more difficulty in crowd management, and the absence of supplemental off-duty police officers employed by individual establishments. In other words, the bars weren't hiring off-duty cops of their own. According to Craft's revised fee schedule, the P.D. now needs $248,251 to provide security - more than $79,000 above the cost set in February. Favaloro's levy for Nite Town went from $1,500 to $2,541; Karma's shot from $1,500 to $4,020.

"It was a $1,500 cap," insists Favaloro, referring to the original agreement. Indeed, the fee schedule released to the media last February after Section 50-50(b) of the LCG Code of Ordinances was approved by the council includes a column headed "Rounded Monthly w/$1,500 CAP." Only Karma, Nite Town and Grant Street Dancehall are on the hook for $1,500 per month in the original fee schedule - they're the big boys downtown - and Grant Street was given a waiver since it's generally a one-night-a-week venue and hires its own police officers for security. But Grant Street is now being told to pay $3,156 per month.

"We agreed to pay this amount of money, and we probably went through about eight months of negotiations. We really weren't negotiating a number; we were negotiating about where and how we were going to do this operation," says Favaloro. "Now, in the levy it was made known to both Chief Craft and [LCG Chief Administrative Officer] Dee Stanley, that if we go into this levy, many of us, if not all of us, were not going to be able to afford to pay for off-duty security at our door. [Craft] said, I don't want them at your door. That's what we're trying to get away from. We don't want them at your door. We want to be able to be on the streets, patrolling the streets. This is the way we want to handle it, through the city and no liability on the bars.' So, we said OK."

Photo by Isabel LaSala

That's not how Craft remembers it. The chief says the larger clubs like Nite Town and Karma entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement with the P.D. to hire additional off-duty officers to provide security in front of their establishments, allowing the security detail to be mobile. Craft says that was to get officers outside of the clubs and avoid the ethical dilemma of having cops working for the clubs. But the clubs, says Craft, backed out on their end of the deal and failed to hire the additional officers, putting a strain on the security detail. "I'm disappointed that, you know, they continue to criticize the police and the detail, but yet they haven't stepped up to the plate and addressed the issues we address."

Craft also says the ordinance that arose from the agreement between the bars and LCG authorizes police to revisit the security situation each September and to adjust the fee schedule accordingly. Section "b" of the ordinance reads, in part: "... the annual special law enforcement levy for which an establishment is liable and responsible is subject to annual review and possible recalculation in September of each calendar year, to be effective on November 1 of each calendar year." According to Craft, they reviewed and recalculated. Simple.

But it's not so simple: District 3 City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin, who represents the downtown, says it was his understanding that the cap was firm. He met Monday to mediate a meeting between the bars and city-parish government, and supports maintaining the cap for the largest venues. Shelvin says had he believed the cap could be busted, he wouldn't have voted for the ordinance back in February. Shelvin characterized Monday's meeting as "a good start," and says while the bar owners agreed to pay the increased levies, he hopes the council will amend the ordinance and make the cap just that, a cap. "I want what's best for the city, but I also want what's best for the people I represent," says Shelvin, "and some of the people I represent are business owners."

Robert Oja of Karma, Andrew Monceaux of Marley's and George Favaloro of Nite town

Photo by Robin May

An INDsider report last week in which an e-mail exchange between Jefferson Street Market owner Rob Robison and City-Parish President Joey Durel was published precipitated some huddling: the bar owners to throw together a strategy; Downtown Lafayette Unlimited to assess the public relations fall-out; and police, city-parish officials, some of downtown's non-bar merchants and DLU to come up with a plan for addressing the crowds and the crime.

What came out of the scrum Thursday at City Hall involving police, merchants, DLU and city-parish officials was a four-pronged plan to address the crowds and the crime downtown: 1. Prevent anyone under 21 from entering bars. 2. Prohibit open alcohol containers and to-go cups. 3. Enact a "no cruising" ordinance to reduce traffic. 4. Establish a curfew, likely at midnight, for anyone not old enough to be inside a bar. An ordinance would be required to make the plan a reality; Shelvin says he would vote against it but adds that he's drafting an ordinance right now to address open alcohol containers.

In the e-mail, Robison decries a late-night situation downtown that he believes is "spiralling out of control," referring to fresh news reports of an armed robbery in the public library parking lot the night before Thanksgiving, vehicle burglaries and two other armed robberies at The McKinley Street Strip nearly a mile away but also off Jefferson Street - in close enough proximity to color the downtown's reputation. "If some sort of drastic measures are not immediately taken," Robison writes to Durel, "we are going to watch years of hard work and private investment go down the drain. The problem, at its roots, is simple: this community has tacitly condoned the proliferation of a criminal enterprise (bars, who by and large flaunt the laws - sneer at them - while stuffing their pockets at the expense of law abiding citizens and taxpayers) which has erupted into a contagion of lawlessness."

Durel's response is equally emphatic: "I am fine with a 21 age limit, curfew, go cups and a goal of reducing the number of bars downtown. I simply don't seem to have any support from where it needs to come from, including the council. If I can declare a midnight curfew legally, and ya'll come to a meeting to ask for it...I'm there!" Durel replies. By Thursday of last week, Durel had tempered his attitude, saying that his response to Robison wasn't intended for publication (an Independent Weekly staff member was copied on the e-mail exchange.), but that he stood by his remarks about wanting to see a reduction in the number of bars downtown. Durel said Thursday morning on his weekly radio show on KPEL, "There are people who run legitimate operations. I wouldn't want to see people who follow the rules, who play by the rules, that wouldn't be a goal of mine, to see good operators go. But those who abuse, those who say we're going to do one thing and they do something else, at some point, if we're going to thin it out a little bit, I'd rather see those who don't play by the rules go, and have those that do play by rules be more successful."

The e-mail exchange between Robison and Durel also set off a fusillade of vitriol from anonymous commenters on The INDsider blog, mainly in defense of the bars. "You cannot place blame on the bars for crime committed by the trash that congregates on the blocks behind downtown," writes one. "None of these proposed solutions' are addressing the actual problem of crime in the downtown area. No one is going to get mugged on Jefferson Street, certainly not in the immediate vicinity of the bars or around large crowds. This stuff happens on the side streets and in the unwatched parking lots," chimes another.

Others blame police: "Every Friday and Saturday night between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., about 6-10 policeman stand on the corner in front of Dwyer's Cafe just hanging out and bullsh****ng with one another... They just sit there and chit chat. Changing curfews or banning 18-20 year olds would be the downfall of Lafayette."

Craft disputes claims that his officers idle in groups. They gather on the side of Dwyer's at the start of the shift, he says, to discuss strategy and receive their assignments; then they fan out, and each is charged with policing a specific area of Jefferson Street. As part of the ordinance and cooperative endeavor agreement, Lafayette Parish Sheriff's deputies patrol the perimeter of downtown; the cops' beat is Jeff Street. Craft also takes exception with the bar owners' claim that only about 1 percent of the crowd on any given weekend night is under 21. "I would say probably 50 percent or more," he estimates.

"They're not really coming down here like you think," says Monceaux, "and if you want to find out for yourself go drive down to the McKinley Street Strip on a Wednesday or a Friday night to see where they're going to drink."

"It's all hearsay; it always has been," Oja says of the notion that downtown is crawling with underage drinkers. Oja, a defensive end-sized hulk of man who could easily be mistaken for a bouncer, purses his lips when mention is made of Robison's e-mail to Durel - it's clearly a bad taste in his mouth. "That was the point of the letter that really irritated me, that it's spiralling out of control.' There's been two reports [of crimes]," he says.

Craft begs to differ, citing stats from this year alone that point to, in some cases, a 400 percent rise in felony calls to the area.

Stanley, Durel's point man between LCG and the bars, says some downtown bar owners have been all talk and no walk, vowing years ago to do away with go-cups and even establishing a 19 year age limit for admission. "I think the concerns that he's expressed, and the frustration that he hinted at in the e-mail that you guys printed," says Stanley, "is here we are, years down the road, we're still speaking about the things we were speaking about years ago."

Pointing fingers elsewhere emerges as a theme among some bar owners: The Strip is really where the underage drinking is happening. Competing hot spots in Lafayette are trying to undermine a successful downtown nightlife scene. Says Favaloro: "It is ignited by our competition away from downtown - the River Ranch area, wherever else they got bars. That's their fuel: Man, it's nothing but kids. You don't want to go over there.'"

Asked if underage patrons were getting drunk in their bars, Monceaux lets fly an emphatic, "F**k no!"

"It's those that are too young to be in the area that are causing a great deal of the problem," asserts District 7 City Councilman Don Bertrand, one of six council members including Shelvin to approve the levy ordinance last February. "I'm not aware of this problem anywhere else in the parish," Bertrand adds. "We're having it downtown. I think we need to address it downtown. Maybe we need to establish an entertainment district and set it aside from everything else."

"The people who are telling you this are people who go to bed at 7 o'clock at night," Favaloro says about what he believes are exaggerated characterizations of rowdy, drunken crowds, many of them minors, marauding through the downtown on weekends. But the evidence on a Sunday morning is compelling: the detritus of broken bottles, discarded wristbands, cigarette butts and plastic cups; the acrid smell of urine in nooks and parking tower stairwells.

Craft and others say the biggest problem with minors downtown on weekends, aside from them obtaining alcohol or bringing it into the area, is the crowd volume it exacerbates - the bigger the crowds, the more dispersed into darkened side streets the parking, the greater the opportunities for criminals to ply their trade. "I don't want to blame victims, OK, but, you know, people violate certain risk factors," says Craft. "You know, if they drink to the point where they're so inebriated they take the wrong way home or walk into an area they're unfamiliar with and they're by themselves, people see that, and there are people who are there because of the crowds to commit crimes, and they take advantage of that. The victim pool is a pretty big pool, and so it's easy pickings for some criminals."

Monceaux's response is narrowly focused: "How are we responsible as business owners for what goes on on Buchanan and Polk and the outlying areas. It's crazy."

As for who's committing the crimes downtown, most of the comments at blame the vagrants. Craft, more than 30 years a cop, says it's not that simple. "I would bet that the transients are responsible for some of the crime and the rest is our home-grown local thugs from the Acadiana area, because many of our arrests are of people who are from out of town, surrounding communities."

In the middle of the squabbling between government and the bars is Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, the non-profit corporation that promotes and facilitates economic development in the district. DLU has been instrumental in downtown Lafayette's relatively rapid transformation from a languishing business district to the bustling area it is today. But DLU, by many accounts, has also been wont to stick its head in the sand when it comes to crime and vagrancy in the area, preferring to accentuate the positive and ignore the negative. That's beginning to change. The group issued a press release last week acknowledging the issue of crowds and crime. Two, three years ago, that probably wouldn't have happened.

"I empathize with the bar owners, I really do," says DLU board President Jaci Russo, co-owner of downtown marketing firm The Russo Group. Russo's company is located at the corner of Congress and Polk streets adjacent to Parc Sans Souci - near one of downtown Lafayette's many dicey margins. "I would be really concerned if some legislative body was coming in here and telling me something different I have to do with my business, and charging me extra money and all the rest of that," Russo says, acknowledging that downtown Lafayette has issues that go beyond late-night crowds. "Look at where my office is: We're surrounded by bums and transients who do accost my clients when they come here for work, and I want downtown to continue to improve every day, and if we need to make contingencies for that to happen, them I'm all for it."

It's unfair to characterize downtown Lafayette as mostly bars; as employment goes, it's mostly banks and courthouses. The problem for many merchants and downtown boosters is that the bars are crammed into a two- to three-block area. Crowds get thick. Decibel levels rise. When LCG, DLU and others were rethinking and then retooling the district, few if any anticipated the complexion the area takes on around midnight on a cool fall Saturday. There's now a tension between that red-blooded American instinct for free enterprise and the vision for a downtown that mixes business and pleasure, arts, culture and entertainment in equal measure. "As a business owner I completely empathize with the frustration and fear that the bar owners must be feeling right now," says Russo. "We built downtown to be an arts and culture district - I'm thrilled that this entertainment component has come out of that, and for the most part, most of the bar owners are law-abiding citizens who contribute greatly to the economic development of downtown. It's great having them here. I want those guys to be more successful; I want them to get better crowds of people who are going to follow the rules. What we don't want is to have business owners downtown who are breaking the rules, taking advantage of any situations, and not being a contributor to society. I'm not a police officer, and that means I don't know if Chief Craft is right or not, but I know we have to do something."