By the time you read this, the Diamond State Rodeo Association will be gone from its clubhouse on Hoffman Road in Southwest Little Rock. A gay and lesbian non-profit group that stages the annual Diamond State Rodeo and numerous charitable events throughout the year, the DSRA has been renting the building for going on 20 years without incident. They've recently found themselves caught up in an ongoing city crackdown on “special event centers” — the sometimes-dicey concert and party venues that often spring up in questionable locations. On March 2, the city issued a six-month moratorium on issuing permits for special event centers until new safety and use regulations can be written.
Though a Diamond State official said problems at the clubhouse have been rare over the past 20 years, Little Rock has frequently had trouble with some other event centers in town, leading to public complaints and police calls and drawing the ire of city leaders. Studio Indigo on West 12th Street was licensed as an event center but often advertised itself as a nightclub. The business was closed in February after numerous complaints from local residents. The last post on the Club Indigo Facebook page, dating back to February, says: “College Night Starts this Friday!! Come out, have fun && (sic) No Fights Guys!”
Lt. Terry Hastings with the Little Rock police said that the vice squad often works with code enforcement and the fire department to investigate problem nightspots. If the trouble there is bad enough, they work to get the club shut down. “The police get called out there frequently and that's part of the investigation that's done,” Hastings said, “the number and type of police calls there as well as fire and code violations. There's a whole gamut of things there that they look at.”
Sandy Bidwell is the Rodeo Association clubhouse manager. She said the order to close was a complete surprise. One morning in April when she came in to clean up after a charitable event, a vice squad officer's card was taped to the door. She called the number. “We have events there, he said,” Bidwell recalled, “and we don't have an event permit. Then he said, we know you're a business and you don't have a business permit. He told us, very nicely, that we cannot have a board meeting and we cannot go there because more than a few people would constitute an event.”
Bidwell said the officer also questioned how the clubhouse distributed alcohol. Under the group's “donation card” system, patrons would donate $10 for a card, and the card would be punched whenever the patron got a drink – different numbers of punches depending on whether they wanted beer or a mixed drink. Bidwell insists they've been doing it that way for over a decade without incident, and that police who visited signed off on the practice.
“The vice squad has been at our club numerous times over the past few years,” she said. “They see what's going on, and they say: okay, you're within limits, and they've left.”
Nonetheless, Michael Langley with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board said that the practice is illegal. “They're still serving alcohol,” he said. “They can call it a donation card, they can call it anything they want to – what they're doing needs to be a permitted establishment.” Langley said the association was avoiding the rules and laws of Little Rock and the state, as well as getting out of paying taxes.
“It's people trying to think up a way not to have to [pay tax],” he said. “It's maximizing profit.”
City Attorney Tom Carpenter, while not speaking specifically about the Rodeo Association clubhouse, said that the city has had safety and criminal problems with event centers for years. Part of the issue, he said, was that the city hasn't officially defined what an event center is. “There wasn't really a good classification in the zoning ordinance for what was an event center and what could become one.” That gray area in the law sometimes led to events being held in spaces that could be a fire or health hazard. “It's one thing to have a Razorback football game,” Carpenter said. “It's another thing to have a rave or something like that. We had bands putting on [concerts] inside old warehouses, which is generally okay, but these places were never designed for that. That's where we were having complaints and fire marshal problems.”
Carpenter said that during the moratorium, the city will work with the fire and police departments to nail down a better ordinance governing event centers.
“I don't know what it's going to be,” he said. “Maybe it's going to be: if you've got 50 people there, it's treated one way; if you've got 250 people there then we have to put something new in place.”
For Bidwell and the Rodeo Association, however, six months will be too long to wait for a permit. They've already had to cancel three large charitable events that had been on their schedule, including a fund raiser for the March of Dimes. She said they'll look for a new home outside the Little Rock city limits. It comes down to dollars and cents. “If we continue to rent the building as we have for God knows how many years, it will eat up every single bit of the money in our account just to hold onto a building we can't use,” Bidwell said. “We're not very happy with Little Rock.”