LITTLE ROCK — Improving public safety is something everyone supports, but some in Pine Bluff think a proposed ordinance requiring private clubs to close earlier is going too far.
On Aug. 5, the Pine Bluff City Council is scheduled to give final consideration to an ordinance that would require all private clubs in the city to shut their doors at 1 a.m.
Local governments have the right to set closing times for the private clubs within their boundaries. Michael Langley, director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, said the 1 a.m. closing time being considered in Pine Bluff is the earliest he’s seen.
"That’s a little odd, most close at 2," Langley said.
Some clubs in Arkansas may still stay open as late as 5 a.m. under Class B permits that haven’t been issued in 20 years, according to Langley, though he said local ordinances passed since then require the establishments to close the spigot at 2 a.m., including laws in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Fayetteville, Greene County, Paragould and elsewhere — not Pine Bluff.
Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said pushing closing time back even further would lessen police calls to private clubs and allow officers to concentrate more on patrolling commercial areas and neighborhoods during the early hours of the morning.
The proposed new law would affect 15 existing private clubs in the city. Seven of them have Class A permits, which now allow them to serve alcohol from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., and eight have Class B permits, which allow them to serve alcohol from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m.
Pine Bluff businessman Lloyd Franklin II said the proposed ordinance to require private clubs in the city to close at 1 a.m. would stifle development and could lead to additional criminal activity.
Franklin said he has invested more than $100,000 into renovating the city’s old Greyhound Bus Station into a facility for people to rent for parties and other events. He said he had hoped to get a private club permit for his business so it could stay open until 2 a.m.
Franklin said the city has been pushing redevelopment for years and that he feels betrayed by the proposal.
"It’s a real slap in the face to the investors who have invested in downtown," he said.
Hollingsworth said a study of criminal activity and police calls conducted between 2010 and the middle of this year showed the early morning hours — 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. — were the busiest for police and most calls came from private clubs.
"That is a very significant time frame (when) our officers can be … patrolling our neighborhoods and can also check on commercial establishments," she said. "They can be patrolling like they need to patrol rather than be at the bars and clubs."
Franklin, a member of the Jefferson County Quorum Court, said the police calls and crime will not end if the clubs do begin closing at 1 a.m. He said the people will simply take their partying to private residences.
"Do you want to close the clubs earlier and make people go into the neighborhoods and have neighborhood parties?" he said. "That will really put policemen in even more danger because you send them into an unknown environment, like a house party, where there’s drinking."
At the private clubs, he said, the patrons are searched before they enter, there are security guards inside and off-duty police officers are often hired to roam the parking lot.
Franklin also said that most of the calls to police during the early morning hours are from off-duty officers working outside the clubs who arrest people on warrants.
"I’d like to see what exactly those calls were for during that time," Franklin said.
He said he was also concerned that once the ordinance is passed lawmakers will continue to chip away at the closing times.
"If you start now with 1 o’clock then what’s next? Will they cut it back to 10 o’clock? Or 11 o’clock?" he asked.
The 33-year-old justice of the peace said clubs open between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. bring in tax revenue and offer entertainment for upperclassmen at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Most vibrant college towns have clubs that stay open late, he said.
Langley said there are 811 private club permits across the state. According a list of clubs provided by the ABC, 106 of them are Class B permits that allow clubs to stay open until 5 a.m. The ABC director said he wishes those remaining Class B permits no longer existed.
"While I support and understand why a 5 a.m. club exists, I have no problem if we had no more ever," he said. "If 5 a.m. clubs went away it would never upset me. We stopped it because it was good policy."
Hollingsworth said she has not received one complaint about the proposed ordinance to shut down clubs at 1 a.m.. She said Franklin did speak against it during a public comment period at a recent city council meeting.
Owners of three private clubs in Pine Bluff recently told The Pine Bluff Commercial that they oppose the ordinance because it would eat into their profits and could cause the city to lose tax revenue.
Franklin said opponents are calling their aldermen to vent their frustration and he expects the proposal to be discussed in detail at the Aug. 5 meeting. Prior to that meeting, the council’s public safety subcommittee is scheduled to take up the proposal.