CityWatch: Close Our Bars at 2 a.m., Just Like Charleston, Greenville

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Kevin Fisher

Columbia City Hall

Having worked for two years as a bartender at Mitch’s Tavern when I was in college at NC State (though “bartender” overstates it, as the drinking age for beer then was 18 and beer was all we served), I remember when the issue of closing time for bars came up back in the day.

Mitch’s Tavern still stands on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, which runs adjacent to the edge of campus there in a similar situation to Five Points and the University of South Carolina here. Mitch’s would go on to fame as the place where the bar scenes were shot for the movie Bull Durham, the Kevin Costner/Susan Sarandon baseball and romance hit. Alas, I was not asked to play the bartender in the movie.

But I well remember the summer when bars on Hillsborough Street were allowed to stay open until 2 a.m. if they wanted, rather than the normal 1 a.m. closing time. Believe it or not, as I recall this was an experiment that had something to do with Daylight Savings Time. The thinking was that under DST it got dark later, so people went to bars later, therefore bars could stay open later in order to have the same business window. Or something like that.

Mitch decided to give the later closing time a try, though almost no other bar on Hillsborough Street did. That included My Apartment Lounge, the legendary topless bar that was a few doors up from Mitch’s and right across Hillsborough from the library at NC State. While it would be forced out by new zoning laws a few years later, My Apartment was a rite of passage for male NC State students of the time.

The fact that Mitch’s stayed open until 2 a.m. and My Apartment closed at 1 a.m. led to dancers coming to the bar when they got off work. This in turn led one night to a somewhat drunk dancer jumping up on the bar at the encouragement of some very drunk students and beginning to strip.

Of course, Mitch told me to climb up there and stop her. Risking life and limb, I did so while being loudly cursed and enthusiastically pelted with beer, among other things.

If only boobs were the issue now. Instead, here in Columbia the issues related to bar closing time are things like public drunkenness, violence, destruction of property and the always-charming urination, defecation and regurgitation onto the lawns of those who live in Wales Garden, University Hill and other neighborhoods adjacent to Five Points.

By the way, I do not live in any of those neighborhoods, so my opinion on the proposed ordinance to eliminate special permits that allow bars to stay open until past 2 a.m. in Columbia is not based on any personal interest.

Instead, it is based on common sense. And common practice.

As to the former, how can Columbia City Council not have the common sense to see that letting Five Points degenerate into what it has become in terms of late-night (or more accurately, early-morning) problems with extreme drunkenness and all that goes with it is killing the area’s future as an arts, dining and entertainment district in favor of having it be known as a designated drunk district?

As to the latter, how is this even a discussion? In case you didn’t know it, we are very much the outlier on this issue, with Charleston and Greenville both requiring bars to close at 2 a.m.

Yet somehow the hospitality industry in those cities has survived and thrived without serving alcohol past 2 a.m. That’s right, all the bar activity on the peninsula in Charleston and all the bar activity on Main Street in Greenville comes to an end at 2 a.m.

What do their City Councils know that ours doesn’t? Maybe how to run a city, for starters.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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