As Statesboro City Council talked Tuesday about definitions of bars versus restaurants — and whether bars could make money as music venues if the minimum age to enter a bar were 21 — Georgia Southern University Dean of Students Patrice Buckner Jackson spoke up.
“It’s not entertainment that we should be discussing today. We should be discussing the safety and the well-being of all residents and all citizens,” Jackson said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s not even about a business model. We’re talking a culture, and this is a part of changing the culture.”
The city’s protracted consideration of how to improve its Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance — and actually enforce it — publicly crossed paths with the university’s interest in protecting its students with the death of Michael Gatto, 18, on Aug. 28. Gatto died from hand-to-hand violence at Rude Rudy’s bar in University Plaza, and Statesboro police subsequently charged fellow Georgia Southern student Grant James Spencer, 20, a bouncer at the club, with aggravated battery and murder by commission of a felony.
But work by some city officials, such as City Attorney Alvin Leaphart, to revise the alcohol ordinance had begun earlier, with the shuttering in November 2013 of two nightclubs where shooting deaths had occurred, Platinum Lounge and Primetime Lounge.
In a recent report to the council, Leaphart suggested that previous changes in the alcohol ordinance, culminating in a major revision enacted Dec. 6, 2011, weakened enforcement, and that sticking with earlier provisions might have prevented Gatto’s death.
Those provisions included criminal background checks for employees of places that serve alcohol and stricter penalties for businesses that violate the rules.
The report also noted the removal, in 2005, of a requirement that restaurants serving alcohol provide documentation to prove they derive at least 50 percent of their income from food or have a certified public accountant sign their reports — commonly known as the “50-50” rule.
Although bars officially still do not exist in Statesboro, “bars were born in Statesboro on November 1, 2005” with that change in the ordinance, Leaphart wrote.
Tuesday during the public work session, which followed the regular council meeting, he sought the council’s input on the alcohol ordinance overhaul.
“There are basic political decisions that need to be made and public policy decisions that need to be made to inform the writing of the ordinance,” Leaphart said.
One of those decisions, he suggested, is whether to establish a separate category for bars with a minimum age, such as 21, for entry. Another is whether to keep the 50-50 rule for restaurants that serve alcohol but admit people of all ages.
“Currently we have a 50-50 requirement, but I don’t think it’s a meaningful 50-50 requirement because there’s no meaningful enforcement of it,” Leaphart said.
He suggested that the city could restore the requirement for a certified public accountant to sign off on the reports and use the state’s law for Sunday sales to better define restaurants every day of the week. The state requires restaurants that serve alcohol on Sunday to meet a 50-50 rule.
For its own, everyday 50-50 rule, the city of Statesboro accepts unaudited reports from restaurants and lets them count cover charges as food payments.
Another change, with the 2011 version of the ordinance, created a category of “sports restaurants” for places that obtain a food service permit, but they aren’t required to have a kitchen. Things such as pretzels can count as food in these establishments.
“That just sounds like a bar to me,” Mayor Jan Moore commented.
As she noted, a number of Statesboro’s alcohol-serving “restaurants” employ bouncers, which she suggested might also be part of a dividing line between bars and real restaurants.
Some cities allow restaurants that sell alcoholic drinks to serve food to people of all ages to a certain time, such as 10 p.m., Leaphart noted. After that, people under age 21 are prohibited, although some cities allow them to remain if accompanied by a parent.
Councilman Will Britt, a former alcohol-licensed restaurant owner, asked about the effect this would have on licensed establishments as entertainment venues. He used the example of the band the Velcro Pygmies playing one night beginning at 9 p.m. at Retrievers Sports Bar & Grill.
“That is a $5,000 band, phenomenal, a huge party,” Britt said. “So, if we enforce that ordinance, no one would be allowed to hear that band except for one hour if they are under 21. One. What did we fix by doing that? We have to change the culture. I don’t think we’ve fixed that.”
He mentioned the owners of Retrievers and another restaurant that offers drinks and live music, saying they “have a very good business model” and that they do not pose a problem.
“You’ve got an underage drinking problem; that’s your problem,” said city Public Safety Director Wendell Turner. “You’ve got an underage drinking problem and you need to figure out how not to put those 18- and 19-year-olds in those positions. … If that band needs to be playing and people need to hear it, they can book that band somewhere else.”
He suggested that the bands attracting audiences under 21 could play at the Averitt Center for the Arts or somewhere on the GSU campus.
It was soon after this that Jackson, the dean of students, spoke unannounced.
She called for “collaboration, a coalition, a team,” including educators and law enforcement, to change the culture and reduce underage drinking, and asked City Council to address its “piece of the pie.”
“Are we going to erase underage drinking? Probably not. Are we going to erase alcoholism? Probably not,” she said. “But are we responsible for a part of that change and a part of that environment? You all absolutely are responsible for a part of that. So what we need you all to do is take responsibility for your part.”
GSU Vice President for Government Relations and Community Engagement Russell Keen also attended Tuesday's work session.
When parents visit, “safety is one of the top concerns of all of them, that their kids will be able to attend Georgia Southern and they'll be safe, not only on our campus, but also in the city," Keen told the council.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.