Little Rock might not quite be a "city that never sleeps," but for decades the city's night owls have had a scattering of options for late-night socializing thanks to licenses that allowed private clubs to operate until 5 a.m. That could be coming to an end, with the Little Rock Board of Directors likely to consider a city ordinance cutting off alcohol sales at 2 a.m.
The issue came before the board multiple times toward the end of last year, with several city directors requesting an ordinance be drawn up for discussion.
City Manager Bruce Moore said that the board could take up an ordinance in the first quarter of 2014.
"We don't have a specific time table at this point," Moore said. "We're doing some research on the various impacts, and I expect at least to have that discussion in the next 30 to 60 days."
Moore said that the city is investigating what the overall economic impact would be and examining the experience of other cities that have adopted an ordinance enforcing a 2 a.m. closing time, as well as collecting crime and public-safety statistics.
"We're also looking at whether there are other options out there to consider besides just a blanket 2 a.m. closing," he said. "Could there be some additional security requirements? We're taking a comprehensive look at the issue and then we'll bring forward some recommendations.
"At the end of the day," Moore added, "the public safety issue is the main issue that we'll be considering."
To stay open until 5 a.m., a club must have a Class B private club license. In 2001, the state Alcohol Beverage Control board stopped issuing Class B licenses and quit allowing the transfer of license between counties. If a license remains inactive for 18 months, it disappears forever. In effect, these rulings grandfathered in existing late-night private clubs. However, several cities and counties, including Fayetteville and North Little Rock, have passed local ordinances forcing clubs to close at 2 a.m.
In Little Rock, there are only 13 Class B licenses, 11 of which are in active use. Three of those 11 — the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Little Rock Association of the Deaf and the Otter Creek Homeowners Association — are not operating a nightclub open to the general public. That leaves these 5 a.m. clubs in the city: Discovery, Electric Cowboy, Club Elevations, Jazzi's, Midtown Billiars, Paper Moon, Salut and Triniti.
Owners of 5 a.m. clubs say that an ordinance forcing them to shut down at 2 a.m. would be devastating to their business.
"Ours is a late-night business," said Norman Jones, owner of Discovery for more than 30 years. "We've always been a late-night business. I open at 9, but the first customers usually walk in at 12. By 1, I have maybe 100 people. By 2, I might have 400 people. Then the service industry gets off work at 2 and that's a big part of who we target. Service workers and other people that work late nights — nurses, late-night lab technicians, Falcon Jet employees, military from Jacksonville. If everyone shuts down at 2 — you're shutting out a whole part of our community here. It would be devastating to the morale of the community."
Jones said he would likely go out of business if he had to close at 2 a.m., a sentiment echoed by Club Elevations owner J.D. Lipscomb.
"We just wouldn't make it," Lipscomb said. "Most of our money is made after 2."
Discovery and Elevations — along with Electric Cowboy, Midtown and Triniti — form the Arkansas Licensed Beverage Association, an advocacy group for late-night clubs. In December, in response to murmurs from the board of a possible ordinance, ALBA launched a website and Facebook page to "save Little Rock's late night entertainment and clubs."
According to ALBA, the 5 a.m. clubs would lose between 60 to 75 percent of their business if forced to close at 2. In a recent press release, ALBA offered other estimates about the economic impact. The clubs would immediately be forced to lay off more than 150 employees, representing more than $1 million in salaries, with more jobs in danger if clubs went out of business. Currently, according to ALBA, the five largest private clubs (Electric Cowboy, Midtown Billiards, Discovery, Elevations and Triniti) pay around $100,000 annually in city taxes and nearly $500,000 in state taxes, in addition to around $17,000 annually in fees and permits to the city and state. The clubs purchase more than $1 million in goods, services and advertising from local and state vendors.
"At the very time that Little Rock is searching diligently for revenue sources to augment shrinking budgets," ALBA argued in its press release, "it does not seem prudent to force the loss of over 150 jobs and deplete a valuable source of revenue."
The Times spoke with four city directors — Stacey Hurst from Ward 3, Brad Cazort from Ward 4, and at-large city directors Gene Fortson and Joan Adcock — all of whom said they were awaiting more information before reaching a firm decision.
Fortson said he was leaning against a blanket ban on 5 a.m. clubs. "My philosophy is I don't like to do blanket bans on much of anything," he said. "I do know the police chief is concerned that there's an incidence of criminal activity in some of those places. I've thought about it some — if you ban them, what you might do is just export the 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. party group to out in the county and still have them on the streets. I'm not ready to say, 'throw them all out' right now until I know more. I'd like to hear more about what we might do to ... increase security or supervision of those places."
Adcock, on the other hand, said her first instinct was "that we need to reduce them all, and have all the same closing hours of 2 o'clock. Because right now some have 5, some have 2 — I think we should be fair to everyone, have a time and that's when everybody has to close." Regarding concerns about late-night clubs losing business, she said, "I think the customer is still going to be out there, it's just the time that we'd be changing."
Adcock said she was interested in seeing the numbers regarding crime at that time of the morning, and added that she wanted to look at the issue from a "social and family" angle. "Lots of people, when you go out and drink until 5 a.m., then you go home and you're not very willing, probably, to get up and get the kids off to school or visit and spend time with the family. One thing we desperately need in this city and this state and this country is more family time."
Jones and Lipscomb said that they hire off-duty police officers to handle any issues that arise at their clubs.
"If anything were to happen, they're right there," Jones said. "We're bearing the cost of that, not the city."
Jones said that without the 5 a.m. clubs, people might turn to private house parties, putting more pressure on police resources. "The streets don't fold up at midnight anymore," he said. "The streets don't fold up at 2. There are so many people that we service. So many people that work so many different hours, people have to relax and unwind and they like good entertainment. That is what I try to provide."
Lipscomb agreed. "If you turn everything in the city off at 2, your neighborhoods will go crazy. Nobody wants that. We have a nice safe place for them to go and have a good time."
Jones and Lipscomb also argued that ending 5 a.m. permits would put pressure on the 2 a.m. clubs.
"Right now, we're not trying to compete with the 2 a.m. clubs," Jones said. "If we were to have to close at 2, we would go hard and heavy with our entertainment roster to try to pull the people earlier. That would pull people out of the River Market and the 2 a.m. clubs earlier."
"Either we would go out of business or we would push a lot of the 2 a.m. clubs out of business," Lipscomb said. "It's a no-win situation. Right now, we feed off the 2 a.m. clubs. You can't push us all back to 2 without someone losing. There's no reason to do that. People will lose jobs, the city will lose taxes."
Lipscomb said that despite the rumblings from the board last year, he was hopeful that the city would listen to the concerns of the late-night club owners.
"I've been in the club business for 37 years," he said. "I think the city will protect us all, the 2 a.m. clubs and the 5 a.m. clubs. I think the directors will be fair to everybody."