Pine Bluff’s night life may be changing soon, and whether the alteration would brighten or dim the city’s fortunes depends upon the opinions of who’s talking.
Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s controversial proposal to impose an earlier closing time for bars and private clubs is expected to be the primary topic at Monday 5:30 p.m. city council meeting. Hollingsworth says her ordinance — co-sponsored by Aldermen Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly — is “crucial” to the city’s future as she believes it would give residents and visitors a real sense of increased public safety here.
The mayor’s detractors, however, feel that their civil liberties are in danger of being trounced upon by what they perceive as a “big brother” city government. Hollingsworth says she “appreciates and understands” the uncertainties behind her opponents’ objections, but maintains that she’s “going to do what’s best for the majority of our citizens.”
“Look,” said the mayor, “we all have to deal with realities. One of those realities for our city is that there is a concern about public safety. We want people to feel safe in their own homes or when they’re driving through town, shopping in one of our stores. enjoying one of our parks or going out to a restaurant with family or friends.
“During my campaign, more people spoke to me about this than they did any other subject,” she continued. “A lot of people see our bars and private clubs as too often contributing to our unfortunate image among the many people who see our city as unsafe. People have a right to go to nightclubs and I’ll defend that, but rights don’t come without responsibility, and we each have a responsibility to empower and consider others in providing for the common good of our city.
“I’m going to do what I think is best for our city, and I believe that in this situation, imposing earlier closing times for our bars and clubs is the most logical step we can take,” she said. “Do you not think this is an important decision? I can promise you that site locators for potential businesses and industries are watching us to see what we do to help enable and ensure a safe city. Nightclubs might attract some visitors from out of town, but new, higher-paying jobs in a growing, stronger and more secure city will attract new residents.”
The debate has even led to disagreement among local ministers, including Alderman George Stepps, who has voiced his disagreement with Hollingsworth’s notion since its first mention.
“I’m against it,” Stepps declared at a Thursday morning press conference called by the Pastors Outreach Committee, which is backing the mayor’s effort. Stepps had said previously that the bars and clubs — some of which currently remain open up to 5 a.m. — provide part-time employment opportunities for police officers who “serve everyone” by isolating security problems and often making arrests that net revenue for the city.
Stepps has also discounted statistics that Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks — who strongly endorses earlier bar closings — says illustrate his stand that trouble calls and traffic problems at the establishments double between 2 and 4 a.m. and prevent officers from focusing on residential and commercial patrols.
“I do know that those statistics aren’t right,” Stepps said Thursday.
Hubanks, meanwhile, hasn’t been impressed by Stepps’ contention that the city profits from the officers’ work at the clubs.
“I don’t like my officers renting out their badges to businesses making money on alcohol and entertainment,” Hubanks said, adding that he’ll disallow the practice if he becomes permanent chief.
Jefferson County Justice of the Peace Lloyd Franklin II, who said he’s spent money to remodel a former bus depot on West Fourth Avenue and hopes to open a nightclub there, challenged the supporting ministers Thursday, asking how they might react to a ruling that church hours be “rolled back” because of “too much traffic.”
Franklin also said that Little Rock authorities are looking at extending club hours there.
Rev. Jesse Turner disagreed with Franklin’s suggestion that clubs offer good entertainment to University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff students.
Recalling the deaths of Walter Ashley and others involved in shootings and other violence in or near local bars, Turner said it’s important to remember that students “should be in school to get an education” and not to possibly harm themselves with “binge drinking.”
“We don’t need Pine Bluff to be known as a party or a club city and to be considered unsafe,” Turner said.
Local resident Larry Freeman, an opponent of the mayor’s proposal, warned of the “danger” of attempting to legislate morality.
Rev. Gary Bell of the pastors group responded by saying the ordinance isn’t aimed at that purpose, but is instead a “public safety issue.”
Opponents’ concerns about revenues contributed to the city through the establishments’ payment of mixed drink taxes being reduced with shorter hours were largely discredited by the pastors panel, as they have been by Hollingsworth and Hubanks. The city collector’s office reports that Pine Bluff received $52,515.43 in mixed drink taxes between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2013, but the ordinance’s proponents say there are no immediately available records to show how many mixed drinks might have been sold after 1 a.m.
Also, the mayor and chief say much more money could be saved among residents and businesses with the crime prevention that increased police patrols could provide.
Alderman Glen Brown, however, believes the ordinance’s enactment would “put Pine Bluff in a bigger poverty hole” with less tax funds from the establishments and by “forcing the club crowds” to instead “move their parties to a house or a business parking lot and cause disturbances.”
“I would prefer that they be at a club instead of in front of or across the street from our houses,” Brown said. “The only source of entertainment Pine Bluff has is nightclubs, and not everyone who goes there is armed or looking for trouble.”
Could there be compromise?
Hollingsworth hinted on Thursday that such a possibility exists.
“I expect the public safety committee will make a recommendation on 1 or 2 to the full council Monday night,” she said. “I’m not hung up on 1 a.m. I could be open to 2.”