October 6, 2012

City Council to vote on Old Town ordinance changes

It could become a lot tougher for Old Town patrons, especially younger ones, to gather and loiter after clubs close if the Wichita City Council has its way.

It could become a lot tougher for Old Town patrons, especially younger ones, to gather and loiter after clubs close if the Wichita City Council has its way.

A special session at 9 a.m. on Tuesday – originally an off-day for the council – will look at possible ways to crack down on the gun violence that plagued Old Town in the late summer.

Action is expected on a series of ordinance changes to regulate the age of Old Town patrons and their accessibility to the entertainment district. The changes target the hours of midnight to 3 a.m. and the issues city officials believe produced the gun violence: “the mass exodus of bar and club patrons from ... establishments into the surrounding streets at closing time.”

Old Town was the scene of shooting incidents on four consecutive weekends in August and September. Despite an absence of injuries, business people have raised concerns about the safety of their patrons.

“I’ve been extremely pleased with the way the city has responded,” said Ryan Gates, managing partner of Heroes Sports Bar and Grill. “In the past week, I’ve met with (Old Town developer) Dave Burk, council members, the city manager’s office, police, the parks department. It feels right now like everyone is working together to make Old Town safer.”

Among the ordinance changes to be addressed Tuesday:

•  When sidewalk vending may occur, requiring closing at midnight.
•  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- through 20-year old patrons.
•  Giving police authority to disperse patrons from adjacent property when the clubs close.
•  Improvements to lighting in Old Town.
•  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.

Vice Mayor Janet Miller, who has led the council’s efforts to address the Old Town gun incidents, said she thinks the council has a solid list of proposals to consider.

“What I’m pleased about is that it’s comprehensive and we’re coming at this from the immediate, short-term and long-term angles,” Miller said. “Every discussion I’ve been involved in has been on how quickly can we make changes, including in the ordinances, to get these in place to give the public a greater sense of security during the late night hours. This is the quickest I’ve ever seen ordinances come to council.

“We’re not going to wait until something else happens.”

Council member Michael O’Donnell agreed, saying he’s behind any city move to control the ages of people in Old Town and keep patrons moving.

Jeff Fluhr, the president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., praised the council’s proposed action as “proactive,” and said it can serve as a recruiting positive as the city lures retail, residential and office interests downtown.

“With the city, and also working with the Old Town Association, there’s been a tremendous investment in Old Town that’s paying off,” Fluhr said. “Old Town is safe. These things are proactive steps being implemented that’s helping address what’s been identified as a couple of hours three nights a week.”

Gates said sales remain strong at Heroes. But he has noticed a sense of “nervousness” among patrons since the August incidents.

“If you are not old enough to drink at a night club, you shouldn’t be allowed in a night club where everyone is drinking,” he said. “While Heroes draws a late-night crowd on weekends we are a sports bar and grill 7 days a week that is appropriate for all ages. Friday and Saturday we shift over to 21 and up, take safety very seriously, have recently increased our safety protocols, and disperse our crowds at different times than our neighbors so we are always proactively part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Gates endorsed the proposed ordinance changes, and said he’s ready to financially pitch in on Old Town-wide safety systems.

“Changing the ordinances so 18 to 20 year olds are not in the clubs on weekend late-nights and prohibiting loitering after midnight is another step in the right direction,” he said. “These ordinances, the identification card reading devices we have implemented, and the addition of new cameras are tools Old Town needs as soon as possible. ... If we can get cameras for Old Town, that stay in Old Town, and help make Old Town safer I’ll be the first business owner to step up and financially invest in them for the greater good of the neighborhood, the safety of my patrons and the well being of my fellow business members. I know of a number of other businesses that feel the same way.”

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