City leaders: Midnight closing ordinance meant to attract employers, avoid 'party town' rep

By Stacy

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Downtown Charleston's nightlife is thriving, but some city lawmakers say it's gotten to be too much.

"There is some question about whether we're out of balance, whether we're at that tipping point," Councilman Mike Seekings said.

Seekings voted in favor of a new ordinance that would force bars that open on King, East Bay, and Market streets and parts of Meeting Street to close their doors at midnight. The ordinance would only apply to new restaurants that open after it passed.

Tuesday's vote was the first reading of the ordinance. It would require three readings before going in to law.

A letter from Police Chief Greg Mullen, Mayor Joe Riley and Charleston director of planning, preservation and sustainability Tim Keane accompanied the ordinance proposal. In it, the city leaders said they needed to "manage" Charleston's vibrant nightlife venues to "ensure [the area's] continued success."

Lawmakers said the ordinance would pause the growth in nightlife, making the peninsula more attractive to businesses that invest millions of dollars.

Some businesses have asked the city to ensure livability remains viable as the nightlife districts continue to grow, officials said.

Other businesses expressed interest in moving to Charleston, but have hesitated because of the city's downtown offerings, officials said.

"We don't want them to make a decision to not come here when it would be a good fit for us because we're out of balance in our other businesses and our livability," Seekings said. "Because remember, when those people bring business here, it's people. We want those people to live here, work here, send their kids to school here and retire here."

He also said businesses that currently exist on the peninsula want to recruit peer companies to come, but they have expressed concerns to city officials.

And residents who live downtown worry about the noise, mobility issues and parking, Seekings said.

"This didn't just come out of no where," he said.

But for Charleston Crab House owner John Keener, the proposal seemed like it did come out of no where. The Charleston Restaurant Association Board member said he and other owners were blind sided.

"We weren't informed until the ordinance was read. We would ask for more advanced notice so we could work in conjunction with the city to better the city," Keener said.

Councilman Dean Riegel agreed. He was the only council member to vote against the ordinance in its first reading.

"I don't believe that the food and beverage industry, who this is going to impact the most, had any opportunity for input," the councilman said.

Keener also said it was not fair to make new restaurants close earlier than others.

"There's one restaurant here open until 2 a.m., one restaurant open until [midnight]. Those people are going to go from one restaurant to another and line up out the door. It's going to put more people in the streets," he said.

But city leaders said they wanted to focus on the daytime.

"We want sidewalks on King Street to be as full of people at 9 a.m. as it is at 9 p.m. If we do that, we've really succeeded," Seekings said.

City leaders will hold public input meetings on the ordinance proposal, they said. It could be months before council members vote on a final reading.

In that time, Seekings said the ordinance could be revamped.

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