Conflict in Clubland

Streets lined with rowdies, fistfights, gunshots, cops in ski masks. Is this what an entertainment district is supposed to look like?

This is the growing attitude among the nightclub owners and managers toward the latest inspections, even as another meeting is scheduled with city officials to discuss the problems. This one will place representatives of the club owners around a table with staff members of every city bureaucracy that influences the operation of the clubs -- the offices of the mayor, the city manager, Code Compliance, planning, and the city attorney. Commissioner Liebman and Chief Barreto will attend. None of the owners is very hopeful. "They never listen," says Kelsey.

Kelsey and Paul Yates of Salvation show up at city hall, this time at the office of Code Compliance. For a club owner, this is the belly of the beast. The office is a warren of gray cubicles assigned to a small army of enforcers. Yates and Kelsey are soon joined in a conference room by the city officials. They are there to help redraft regulations that define nightclubs, cabarets, restaurants, and lounges, their hours of operation, and age requirements for admission.

After a brief discussion, it becomes clear that most city officials charged with rewriting the laws have little or no firsthand experience of the businesses they are being asked to regulate. No one tries to hide this. Planning director Dean Grandin, for one, questions just who patronizes clubs at 5:00 a.m. Are they locals or are they tourists who deposit more money in the local economy?

Gradually Yates assumes a leading role in the discussion. He not only owns part of Salvation, he has operated clubs in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. He formed part of a task force that rewrote similar laws in Washington. He mentions his position as a police commissioner in Atlanta. He is the one person present who belongs to both worlds of officialdom and the nightlife business, and he acts as a bridge between very two different experiences.

The discussion begins to bear fruit. The owners had feared they would be forced to lock up earlier than their current 5:00 a.m. closing time, but city officials don't press that position. It is agreed, however, that allowing all clubs to close at that hour, disgorging thousands of young people into the streets of South Beach at the same time, is unwise. Clubgoers should be able to dance off the alcohol and possibly have a bite to eat in clubs where the liquor has been locked up; those businesses can stay open later. Yates explains that this is how it works in Washington, D.C.

New definitions of cabarets, nightclubs, and supper clubs are deferred for further discussion. New regulations are already before the city commission that will shorten the hours of convenience stores and gas stations where minors are known to buy beer and wine or have it bought for them. The discussion shifts to the underage teenage troublemakers. Yates and Kelsey say owners might be willing to end the all-ages parties if that is what it will take to clean up the Beach.

The meeting ends with a palpable sense of relief. Everyone seems just a bit surprised at the cooperation. Liebman declares the meeting a success. Even the normally combative Kelsey is taken aback. "They listened," he later marvels.

The next two weeks see more meetings, but also more conflicts. The no-kitchen violations filed against three clubs are put on hold by City Manager Sergio Rodriguez. No fines need be paid for the moment, and the threat of closure is lifted. Rodriguez also agrees that nightclubs should be exempt from having kitchens and preparing food as long as they provide food -- even if it is cooked elsewhere. What kind of food isn't clear. Representatives of both Salvation and Amnesia say they will host no more all-ages nights and will not allow outside promoters to do so. These two clubs have drawn the largest teenage crowds, so their decisions are significant.

But the code enforcement officers are still out in force, measuring dance floors. Both Salvation and Warsaw have received violations for keeping their doors open after 5:00 a.m. Meetings to draft the new definitions run into roadblocks. City officials suggest certain numbers of tables and chairs in clubs; when they are advised that a lot of furniture is a hazard in case of fire, they back off. "They want to write laws about an industry they know nothing about," fumes Kelsey after one meeting.

The club owners retain another attorney just in case group legal action becomes necessary. Kelsey sees some good signs in the new legislation that may eventually come before city leaders. South Beach may fulfill its destiny as the adult Disney World after all. The war with the city may end.

But nothing has been finalized, and Kelsey sounds an alarm in a bulletin to the members of the association. "Don't become complacent, " he warns. "We still need to be prepared for battle if these changes are not accepted by the commission.... Don't forget that there are a lot of people out there who are very much against clubs and bars.

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