The price of causing trouble in Old Town may be about to escalate, courtesy of a City Hall partnership intended to crack down on late-night offenders.
Next month, the Wichita City Council will consider an ordinance establishing Old Town as an entertainment district, which would enable the city to increase fines and tighten police regulation on offenders.
The ordinance is almost two years in the works. Talks began in September 2012 in the wake of two shootings in Old Town.
“This is going to have no detrimental effect whatsoever on anyone coming to Old Town who doesn’t break the law,” council member Janet Miller said. “But if you come downtown to break the law, it’s going to cost you more than in other parts of the city.”
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A lot more: Get caught by police once, and face a $500 fine. Get caught twice, and it’s $1,000 and up to six months in jail. The proposed ordinance is expected to target various party-related legal issues: fighting, burglary, alcohol-related offenses.
Become a habitual offender, and merely stepping foot in Old Town could land you in jail. Judges could have the authority to “map” repeat offenders out of Old Town, making the offender’s presence in the district illegal.
“We are serious about making Old Town family-friendly, more of a destination where people can come to have a good time and know they’re going to be safe,” said Wichita developer Jason Van Sickle, who heads the Old Town Association. “The city and our other stakeholders have been extremely helpful, and we think this is what it will take to get that done.”
The district would extend from Central south to both sides of Douglas, and from Wabash west to the west side of St. Francis.
The ordinance, being drawn up by the city’s legal staff working with Wichita police and the Old Town Association, would clear the way for Wichita police to tighten their grip on late-night carousers and traffic leaving Old Town bars and restaurants.
Police would be able to put up barricades and force traffic out of the district, eliminating the longstanding problem of post-closing cruisers, Van Sickle said.
The proposed ordinance drew the unanimous endorsement of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. board.
“We think a lot of great things have been accomplished in Old Town. It’s a successful 20-year development,” said WDDC president Jeff Fluhr. “We view this proposed ordinance as a proactive step, a preventative measure to manage what we believe will be a growing entertainment district.”
Warren Theatres owner Bill Warren called it a great idea that would be good for business. “We all understand that 99 and a half percent of the people who come to Old Town just want to enjoy themselves. It’s the half percent that cause the problems for all of us and we’ve got to address that,” he said.
He said alcohol should be included in the ordinance. “If not, why do it at all?” he asked.
Heroes owner Ryan Gates praised the proposed ordinance.
“It’s about taking charge of the community to make it safer, a careful balance of figuring out what to do to promote safety downtown and deter bad actors that isn’t so ‘big brother,’” he said.
The ordinance will get a hard look from the Wichita City Council, vice mayor Jeff Blubaugh said.
“People need to feel safe. It’s important that we take a look at this,” Blubaugh said. “If we need to strengthen the ordinance, then we should take a look at doing just that.”
Van Sickle said the proposed Wichita ordinance mimics steps taken in other entertainment venues, including Bricktown in Oklahoma City.
Bricktown has used an 11 p.m. curfew for minors and a heavy police presence to cut into any crowd problems, said Mallory O’Neill, who manages the district for the city.
Fourteen police officers are on the street Friday nights, 16 on Saturday nights, in a move “that’s been very effective for us,” O’Neill said.
“We’ve had a lot of success with that,” she said. “We hosted the Division I wrestling national championships here, had people in Oklahoma City from every state, and I don’t know how many times we heard from the visitors how safe it was at all hours of the day.”
Miller said the vast majority of people who patronize Old Town don’t intend to create trouble.
“I think that the public at large, and those who own property, run businesses and enjoy coming downtown would say we don’t want lawbreakers in Old Town,” Miller said.
“We want this to be an entertainment district where people abide by the existing laws and don’t make it uncomfortable for those of us who want to enjoy a good time.”