Statesboro City Council appears closer to voting on an Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance that would recognize the existence of bars and no longer describe them all as restaurants.
How to draw the line was the most discussed point during Wednesday’s council work session. As part of a list of comments, the Bulloch County Alcohol and Drug Council and its director, Joyce Stubbs, asked for a definition of the word “bar.”
Neither of the two proposed versions of the ordinance strictly defines a bar or nightclub. “If you use a strict definition, somebody is going to find a way around it,” City Attorney Alvin Leaphart told Stubbs. “If you make it overtly technical, there are going to be easier ways to avoid it, so the way the ordinance deals with it is more from a common-sense approach.”
Both versions apply special rules to any place that that “by name, common usage, knowledge and/or understanding … constitutes a bar, night club, lounge or similar business.” The more restrictive Version A would prohibit everyone under 21 years old, the minimum drinking age, from entering these.
Instead of a single definition, the proposed ordinance sets out indicators of what may constitute a bar, night club or lounge. These include a limited menu or no food service, the presence of a bar service that is the main way to order drinks, and more than half the place being standing-room only.
Staying open after midnight, a cover charge that does not entitle the customer to a seat, and the use of security personnel would also be signs of bar-hood. But no single indicator would be definitive.
The idea is to give the city’s Public Safety Department, which includes the police, the ability to look at a place and decide whether it is a restaurant or a nightclub.
“Somebody will go out and look at the actual evidence …, at how this place operates, and then they will make a judgment call on what it is,” Leaphart said.
Owners could appeal the public safety director’s ruling to the city manager, and potentially to the Bulloch County Superior Court.
Version B would let patrons between 18 and 21 years old into a bar or nightclub, if it obtained a special permit, put distinctive wristbands on those in the 18-21 bracket, and met other conditions. Not much was said Wednesday about Version B. Both versions were drafted before the governor signed a new state law.
New state law
House Bill 152, which takes effect July 1, was enacted in response to the death of Michael J. Gatto, 18, last Aug. 28 after a violent encounter at the since-closed Rude Rudy’s nightclub in Statesboro.
Among other things, “Michael’s Law” would prohibit anyone under 21 from entering a bar unless accompanied by a parent, guardian or spouse 21 or older, or unless the bar is hosting a live music or art performance with an admission charge. The law defines a bar as a place that derives 75 percent or more of its revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption.
In relation to Statesboro’s existing, but minimally enforced, 50-percent rule, the state’s new 75-percent rule is really a 25-percent rule. In effect, it requires that a place make more than 25 percent of its income from something other than alcoholic drinks to avoid being labeled a bar.
The 18-21 bracket
Another part of the proposed ordinance would restrict people under age 18 from remaining at certain restaurants that serve alcohol after 11 p.m.
They could stay only if accompanied by a parent or guardian, or if the restaurant derives at least 60 percent of its annual revenue from prepared meals and offers an unlimited menu after 11 p.m.
Councilman Phil Boyum suggested banning everyone under age 21 from restaurants that serve alcohol after their kitchens close, when they would become bars. After the meeting, he said his intent is to keep the ordinance easy to understand and enforce.
“State law says that we’re not allowed to serve alcohol to anyone under the age of 21, and so my thinking is that any time an establishment, whether it’s a bar or a restaurant or whatever, primarily is serving alcohol, then no one under 21 should be coming into that establishment,” Boyum said.
Mayor Jan Moore argued that this could only work if a transition time is spelled out in ordinance or individual licenses.
Return to 50 percent
Councilman Travis Chance said he wanted to return to the 50-percent rule or something like it, with a certified public accountant signing the reports. The CPAs would put their licenses on the line to sign a false report, he said.
Most restaurants close at 11 p.m., he said, suggesting that this be made a firm dividing line.
“If you’re open after 11 o’clock, you can’t have anyone in your establishment under 21,” Chance said. “It’s cut and dry, period.”
Councilman Will Britt said he liked the idea of a rule to keep youth under 18 out of places serving alcohol unless accompanied by someone over 21.
“Five years ago I wanted that in there,” Britt said. “That says you can’t be under the age of 18 in any establishment. … I think that’s a great thing.”
But he argued that keeping 18- to 20-year-olds out of restaurants after a certain hour could cause them to flock to private parties.
Nancy Waters, who once chaired Statesboro’s now abolished Alcohol Control Board, said the 50-percent rule did not work even when accountant-signed statements were required.
“We had quarterly reports on the 50-50,” Waters told the city officials. “It was extremely unsuccessful in determining who had a restaurant and who did not. That, by itself, was worthless.”
Al Chapman, owner of Gnat’s Landing of Statesboro, said that many new restaurants are buoyed by alcohol sales as they struggle to establish a reputation for food. A restaurant cannot increase its food prices much and keep customers, so a 50-percent rule inadvertently encourages drink discounts, he said.
Dingus Magee’s owner Larry Owens said he has no objection to the ordinance as proposed, including the way it distinguishes bars from restaurants.
“I’ve always said I think we ought to just pretty much go with the state law and leave a lot of this other stuff out, but with what the state law says and what I assume they’re going to go with, I don’t have a problem with it,” Owens said in an interview.
Currently, Dingus Magee’s is stopping people under 21 from entering after 8 p.m. Those already there are allowed to finish their meals. This voluntary curfew helps avoid problems as the restaurant takes on more of a club atmosphere after 10 p.m., Owens said.
About 30 people, including city officials, attended the work session, which started at 3 p.m. and lasted about two and a half hours. From one to three City Council members were present varied amounts of time.
The ordinance is not on the agenda for Tuesday’s regular meeting.
Mayor Jan Moore said she anticipates that a final work session will be scheduled for some time in June.
"Then, hopefully, we can begin to look at crafting the final draft to be approved by council, my hope would be at some point in July,” she said.
Stubbs said she believes the proposal would be a great improvement over the current ordinance.
“When it comes to voting time, I’m not sure how they’re going to vote,” Stubbs said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.