The Wichita City Council on Tuesday tightened its grip on Old Town violence, approving citywide ordinance changes and new technology in the wake of four late-summer shootings in the downtown entertainment district.
The council appears primed to tighten that grip further through the formal designation of Old Town as an entertainment district, a legal maneuver that would permit even tighter Old Town-specific regulations focused more on how police define the problem: Men between the ages of 23 and 28, many who haven’t patronized any clubs or bars, who come downtown between midnight and 2:30 a.m. “because that’s where the women are” to create a “chemistry” with the district’s bar and restaurant patrons, Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said.
The changes approved by the council, which take effect next week after a second reading, include:
• When sidewalk vending may occur, requiring closing at 1 a.m., a change from midnight in the original ordinance.
• How food sales are determined at drinking establishments, including changing the entertainment ordinance so any kind of admission or entry fee, such as a cover charge, doesn’t count toward the 30 percent food sales threshold that allows clubs to serve 18- to 20-year-old patrons.
• Giving police authority to disperse patrons from adjacent property when the clubs close.
• Improvements to lighting in Old Town, including permanent and temporary lighting to make patrons readily visible as they move between bars and clubs.
• The installation of video cameras in Old Town, with business owners poised to privately fund the video system.
• Design improvements to the area to promote safety, including landscaping modifications to increase sight lines in Old Town.
The 6-0 vote came after more than two hours of often testy debate, featuring an attempt to redirect the discussion away from Old Town toward the five police shootings in the city this year, and then efforts by Occupy Wichita to represent the proposed ordinance changes as a hastily-conceived racist attempt to eliminate blacks from downtown.
“Ironically, one of the biggest concerns I have if we don’t do something or act quickly is to have another young person die in Old Town, and then have speakers down here criticizing us for not moving fast enough to take action to protect the young people in the city,” said Vice Mayor Janet Miller, one of the movers behind the ordinance changes.
Several members of the Old Town business community, including the district’s Old Town Association, stood firmly behind the council on the proposed changes. Other business owners like Brian Shapiro, owner of Doc Howard’s, urged the council to consider that the district’s problems are occurring in dark areas, not in bars.
Officials from the Hotel at Old Town and the Courtyard by Marriott urged the council to act quickly, saying future business scheduling is being hurt by the perception that Old Town is dangerous.
“We have had groups inquiring about staying with our hotel that have said they’ve heard or seen on the news things about Old Town, that it’s not a good place to stay,” said Andrew Bryant, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott.
“We’ve had guest service satisfaction comments come back saying, ‘Gunshots in Old Town.’ You cannot stop every single gunshot, but I think we stand here asking for your help.”
Members of the Occupy movement led the opposition, passing out small pieces of paper before the meeting with the group’s position statement.
“The city council has ignored repeated pleas for justice in five fatal shootings,” the statement reads. “They have refused to entertain the idea of passing laws that would make investigations into police shootings transparent in the future.
“But when the Old Town Association complains about four isolated incidents that harmed not one person the city council immediately convenes this special hearing rushing proposed legislation.”
Mike Shatz, the group’s spokesman, said the changes are “designed to put a strain on Old Town businesses that are used by minorities.” He accused some Old Town businesses of “wishing to run minorities out of the district” and accused Wichita police of targeting “anyone who isn’t white” in Old Town.
That part of the meeting became heated, with Occupy members accusing Old Town businesses of racism and other Occupy members yelling comments from the back. Mayor Carl Brewer ordered those comments to end, followed by the appearance of police security in the auditorium.
Occupy Wichita’s attempt to turn the meeting into a police referendum clearly angered some on the council bench. Council member Michael O’Donnell fired back, praising the police work in Old Town, leading some Occupy members to leave the auditorium.
“I want to publicly defend the police department and thank them for their work downtown,” O’Donnell said. “I have heard nothing but positives from business owners and patrons that go downtown.
“I’ve been approached by numerous people at district advisory board meetings, and through e-mails, who are concerned about the direction Old Town is heading. We do need to protect that investment, the hundreds of millions of dollars invested downtown.
“We’ve invested too much to not be proactive.”