BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – After being pressured into reducing hours of operation and making other changes after several high-profile crimes, the Princess Theater, O-Kay Foods and the Columbus Fairgrounds are expanding their hours. The compromises came during Tuesday’s meeting of the Columbus City Council.
The council also swore in eight police officers, approved hiring three officers and promoted a lieutenant to captain.
Attorney Mark Jackson spoke on behalf of both the Princess and the Fairgrounds. He began with the issues facing the Princess.
On March 19 shots were fired on the street outside the Princess Theater, striking five vehicles. In the aftermath the city and Princess owner Bart Lawrence worked out a compromise where the business would close the large theater portion, which drew very large crowds on the weekend, and would temporarily close the remainder of the business at 10 p.m. Lawrence also agreed to work with Downtown residents and business owners to find ways to alleviate issues caused by loitering and littering.
Jackson said at the time that he would be back in two weeks’ time to possibly extend the hours to midnight, and Tuesday night he came before the council to do exactly that.
“Since the last time I was before you we had the community meeting where we heard from some people who had not voiced their opinions,” Jackson said. [Mr. Lawrence and his attorneys met with city representatives and members of the public March 29 at the YMCA. – Ed.] “It was a productive meeting and we got a lot of feedback then and at the meetings since then. This proposal tonight is something that I have discussed with the mayor and we think that both sides can agree is a good plan moving forward.
“(Lawrence) proposes that at this point to push the hours back,” he said. “Last time we cut the hours back to 10 p.m. Now that it’s been several weeks and the foot traffic and the issues that they were having in the area, according to (Police Chief Oscar Lewis) and my client and some of the people in the area, is dramatically down. A lot of the issues really stemmed from the theater, and that is closed now. The issues that were in that area were not on the nights that they were having karaoke and things like that. It was all around Friday and Saturday evening when the club was open. There is no plan at this time to reopen the theater.
“We ask that he be allowed to push back his closing time to midnight,” Jackson said. “That proposal is for an eight-week period. I think that the gesture made by my client, as well as the increased police presence and the lighting has made a huge difference. That’s not just from Mr. Lawrence and the police department, that’s from talking to people in the community. They’ve seen a difference, and that’s exactly what we were hoping for. (Lawrence) has been going around and picking up garbage on the sidewalks and on those private lots, and he will continue to do that moving forward.
“As far as the theater portion, at this time Mr Lawrence has no intentions of opening it back up anytime soon,” he said. “We would like to come back before the council no sooner than three months from now with a concrete plan that would allow him to open it up for special events. That theater has been there for a very long time, and it has been important to the city and I think it can be used again in a manner that is fair to Mr. Lawrence as well as maintaining the safety and security of downtown.”
Jackson said if, after eight weeks there have been no problems, the Princess would like to return to its former 1:30 a.m. closing time.
“If there are any issues before that time we’ll have open communications,” he said. “One of Mr Lawrence’s concerns was that he was not aware of some of these calls for service. We ask the chief that when the patrol guys come around they introduce themselves and then if there is a call for service that they come in and let him know what’s going on. On the other side of that (Lawrence) has agreed that if someone has to be put out of the business that they won’t just be put out on the sidewalk, that they will call the police and make sure the area is safe and secure.”
“We had a good meeting the other day with Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Jackson,” said Smith. “There was dialog on both sides and compromise on both sides. I think if both sides work together as promised, we’ll see a big difference.”
Smith said that he recommended approving Lawrence’s request. Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner made a motion, seconded by Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, to approve it, but City Attorney Jeff Turnage said that wasn’t necessary.
“This is a self-imposed closing time,” Turnage said. “We had an ordinance we were about to take up when Mr. Lawrence voluntarily changed his hours. If you’re comfortable with what they are proposing then you don’t have to take any action.”
Jackson then moved on to the Fairgrounds.
The city council imposed a 90-day moratorium on large events involving alcohol at the Fairgrounds after a shooting at a Christmas party. The city and the Fairgrounds management have since been trying to work out new guidelines for such events, as well as upgrades to the facility to make it more safe.
“That 90-day moratorium ended this month,” Jackson said. “However, my client has continued to abide by it. We wanted to touch base with the local law enforcement about the cameras, the lighting, the security measures that were put in place. Since that time I’ve spoke with (Lewis) and Sheriff Mike Arledge. I’ve spoke with Anthony Nelson in narcotics here in Columbus as well as Archie Williams with the narcotics task force. They were walked through where the cameras were placed and the increased security that’s out there. Everybody was in agreement that this would be a huge help to law enforcement and they felt like we went beyond what their expectations were. My client has taken quite a bit of expense to do that to make sure that not only the city is satisfied but that people still want to come to the Fairgrounds. It’s been a vital part of Columbus in hosting big events, small events and auctions over the years.
“One of the major concerns that came up was that people would say they were going to have a party with 250 people and then 400 or 500 or 600 people would show up,” he said. “That is an obvious concern and it is something that has happened in the past. One of the things in the proposal and in the contract that we are drafting is that security will be required at the front and they will maintain a headcount. Once they reach whatever number it is, CPD will be notified and they can come to the area. My client has been contacted by a number of security companies that are interested in offering their services moving forward.”
Jackson asked that the Fairgrounds be allowed to resume operations under the terms of the new agreement.
“We have exceeded what the city has required us to do,” Jackson said.
Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor made a motion to lift the moratorium, and was seconded by Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens. It passed unanimously.
On the heels of these two issues, Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones asked that O-Kay Foods be allowed to stay open until 8 p.m.
On March 21 two men were shot during an altercation inside the store. As part of the agreement, owner “Sam” Nagi cut the closing time back to 5 p.m. and agreed to put up surveillance cameras and no loitering signs.
The store, which is in a heavily residential area, was originally open until 10 p.m. on week nights and 11 p.m. on weekends.
The issue was not on the agenda, but Jones had circulated a letter to the council that read in part: “I am happy to report that the owner has made the changes we requested and after visiting the store myself several times, I want to make the motion that we allow the store to now extend their hours to 8 p.m. each night effective immediately. I know the mayor and police have seen changes and I want to thank the owner for stepping up and making public safety an important of his business”
“I’ve talked to (Nagi) and (Lewis and Captain Brent Swan) concerning O-Kay Foods,” Smith said. “(Nagi) has purchased cameras both inside and outside the store and he has adhered to the city requests.”
Jones made the motion, seconded by Turner, but again Turnage said a motion was not necessary because the changes had been “voluntary.”
In other business, the city swore in eight officers: Haley Lucas; Emily Konoir; Judias Neal; Alvin Ellis; Eugene D. Betts; Aaron D. Conley; Erica Moody; and Zachary O’Callaghan. Additionally one certified officer and two entry level officers were hired.
Finally, Lt. Rick Higgins was promoted to captain. He is replacing Capt. Donnie Elkin as patrol commander; Elkin announced his retirement earlier this year.