With the crowds of A-Day weekend now more than two weeks in the past, a cooler approach is being taken toward ways of minimizing violence while keeping bar businesses alive.
From City Hall to barkeeps, almost all have said recently that productive discussions are taking place that would lead to appropriate solutions for mitigating crime while maintaining thriving entertainment areas.
Where to go from here, though, remains unknown.
“If y’all have got good ideas, get them to us,” said District 4 Councilman Lee Busby to local bar and business owners last week. “I lay awake at night over this and I don’t know the answer.
“In fact, I’m not even entirely sure I know the problem, because I suspect the problem has multiple dimensions.”
In a conversation that’s expected to continue during Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council’s administration and policy committee, local bar and restaurant owners have said that, yes, this problem does have multiple dimensions, some of which may never arise again.
And here, less than a month away from an A-Day weekend that saw police respond to 271 calls across the city, is still too soon to know what the best solutions are.
“Everybody is still learning what happened that night,” said Brandon Owens, executive director of the Alabama Beverage Licensees Association. “It was just a perfect storm of things to make the Strip pack out.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a Magic City Classic during COVID on A-Day weekend any time again in our lifetime.”
A few wild nights
Concerns erupted following the A-Day weekend that, for the Tuscaloosa Police Department, began well before the annual scrimmage began.
The Thursday before the A-Day game brought an officer-involved shooting on Skyland Boulevard East and Friday delivered a hatchet attack on McFarland Boulevard.
But on the evening of April 17, after the crowds that had gathered for the University of Alabama’s annual A-Day intra-squad scrimmage hit the Strip, they were being joined by scores of visitors who had come down from Birmingham after attending the annual Magic City Classic match-up between Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University.
These crowds got large – so large that Tuscaloosa Police Chief Brent Blankley ordered multiple patrol vehicles to be brought in to disperse crowds that had grown to overwhelming, and potentially dangerous, sizes – but no one, ultimately, got hurt.
“Thankfully, we did not have any (violent) incidents on the Strip,” Blankley said last month, “but it could’ve ended a lot different.”
But when these incidents came within weeks of a shooting at a Temerson Square bar and that left five people injured and two arrested on attempted murder charges, city officials are now looking to act.
However, a week after impassioned talk of limiting bar hours, reducing alcohol serving times and notions of shutting businesses that aren’t worth the tax dollars spent to protect them, conversations are taking a more productive tone.
“What we want to do is take a holistic approach – not an us vs. them approach – in trying to mitigate this problem because we’re all in this together,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.
A recent meeting between City Hall and business owners along the Strip provided some consensus.
Owens was a part of that meeting and said that all involved appeared to want the same thing: a safer entertainment area without hurting people who have invested so much into their own businesses.
And what that is, exactly, has yet to be found.
“I think it’s too early,” Owens said of potential answers. “I think we’re all still at the stage of where we’re talking about solutions.”
Some things that all seem to agree on is improved lighting and a reduction in foliage to allow for greater lines of sight.
But other measures, such as reducing bar hours or closing streets off to vehicular traffic aren’t being met with such enthusiasm.
“Improving safety and welfare of all guests and visitors, we’re all for that,” said Jay Jarrett, co-owner of the Twelve25 bar and night club on the Strip. “But the reduction in hours, I’m not on board with that.”
Those measures would have a direct effect on the 50 or so people that Twelve25 employs on either a full- or part-time basis, workers who range from college students to adults with families.
But that conversation with the mayor and city officials was productive, Jarrett said.
“It was a productive start,” Jarrett said. “There were some ideas brought forth that I think would help all businesses.”
Things like improving communication between the bar and business owners through a new or reformed business association, which could allow for real-time updates between these businesses on bad actors or other issues.
Away from campus
Beyond the Strip, bar owners also are open to ideas to help improve conditions. The problem is, they said, there’s not one fix that would work for each one.
Cliff Clark, the owner of the now-shuttered Roxy’s Bar where last month’s shooting occurred, said he understands that everyone wants crime out of these areas, but he’s hesitant to believe the bars are what creates it.
Though, he agrees that some changes need to be made in order to accommodate the expected mass of college football fans who will be returning to Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall.
“I think everybody’s got to realize that, you know, the bar hours aren’t the reason there’s crime,” said Clark, who is transitioning Roxy’s into a bar called “Decades,” a club that will focus on music and themes ranging from the 1980s to the 2000s. “We talk a lot about a lot of things, but there’s typically not a follow-through on a lot of things.
“We just need to keep talking and come up with solutions. There’s no (one) answer to anything.”
And outside of the Temerson Square and Strip districts is The Alcove, where owner Chad Smith said a better police presence would go farther than just about anything proposed so far.
And while he, too, agrees that A-Day created this “perfect storm” of conditions that will likely never be repeated, he’s concerned that who may want bars and similar businesses pushed further and further away from the University of Alabama campus are going to take this opportunity to advance their goals.
That, he said, would be unfair to all involved at a time when some business owners are beginning to claw themselves back from the brink of bankruptcy brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I hope we all can take a step back and look at a bigger picture here and come up with some level-headed solutions and not just jump at more regulations and policy decisions directed at one specific industry,” said Smith, who also owns ‘Loosa Brews just off University Boulevard downtown. “It’s just a trying time in every one’s lives and we don’t need to make it more trying by stressing more business owners out after trying to get back on their feet after a really, really tough year.”
Reach Jason Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org.