Walter Pierce

re: The Bar Code

by Walter Pierce

Downtown’s vibrant nightlife is straining more than police resources So, it’s come to this. Just nine months after city-parish government and downtown bar owners worked out a deal to control the press of humanity on weekend nights, the acrimony is as acrid as ever. Cops say the situation has gotten worse — the crowds are drunker and more surly than ever, and crime in the area has skyrocketed — and they need more money for more officers. Some of the bar owners, particularly those who own the biggest venues, accuse police and the government of reneging on a deal and, worse, of Mob-like extortion.

We got to this point through incremental neglect over the years by policy makers — not this council, but certainly by councils past — blinded by the heady momentum of economic development.

The transformation of downtown Lafayette has been almost startling. A quarter century ago, Jefferson was a one-way street, and when the banks and courthouses closed at 5 p.m., the area emptied faster than a drunk gambler’s wallet. There were few restaurants and one, maybe two bars. The area was in that phase from which many downtowns never recover — businesses were moving south with the population, the ruddy commercial complexion had gone sallow.

But Lafayette was smart, and in 1983, through an act of the Legislature, the Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Lafayette Unlimited were created, and they began tending to the patient. Vital signs started to improve; Downtown Alive! struck a chord within a year and was followed before the decade ended by Festival International de Louisiane. A park was added and a parking tower went up. By the time Streetscape was launched just over a decade ago, it was clear we would save our central business district and make it better. In fact, Streetscape may have never happened had the CBD EKG not registered a robust beep. Now there’s a once-a-month ArtWalk, and Bach Lunch has moved in, too. Downtown Lafayette is cool — there are galleries and restaurants on virtually every block. The Acadiana Center for the Arts built a new space and is expanding beautifully. As Jaci Russo, a downtown business owner and president of the DLU board, points out in this week’s cover story, the vision for downtown Lafayette was of an arts and cultural revitalization — galleries, restaurants and cultural centers serving as a buttress for commerce and giving residents varied incentive to come downtown. It worked.

And then something happened. A bar opened. And then another, and another. Downtown Lafayette was like the Oklahoma Territory: so much vacant space on which to stake a claim. The Sooners rushed in, installing taps and coolers, sound systems and disco balls. Now there are nearly 20 bars in a three-block stretch of Jefferson Street, and on weekend nights downtown Lafayette takes on a different character, a polar opposite of its 9-to-5 demeanor. And the proverbial city fathers wring their hands and say, “This is not what we wanted. This is not what we imagined.”

But it is what we deserved, by not realizing as the bars began to proliferate that too many of them in too confined an area could be a problem. In truth, the problem isn’t the bars; it’s the people the bars attract, and the criminals the people attract — a drunk person is the easiest prey, “low-hanging fruit” as one downtown merchant put it. Most of the bar owners are honest, hard-working people — entrepreneurs. We celebrate their pluck, and we happily collect their sales taxes. Yet, a critical element of downtown’s revitalization has yet to be realized: the residential component. And people living downtown becomes less likely as the late-night situation becomes untenable. Who wants the noise, the trash, the drunken college boys disburdening their bladders in the flower bed?

Something has to give. That something will be the bars, thinned out through a legislated attrition that goes beyond the current moratorium on new bars — by banning 18- to 20 year olds and establishing a curfew. It will be painful, but it’ll restore balance.