Business owners rail against new downtown nightclub

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 10, 2000

Downtown business leaders are calling a new Washington Street nightclub “deja vu,” a flashback to late-night lawlessness that they say has plagued the area periodically for years.

But the mayor and police chief argue that a large crowd for a grand opening party doesn’t necessarily make a business a public nuisance.

It was a year ago this month that complaints of unruly crowds, brawling and vandalism in front of Club T-Rel ended when the business lost its lease. At the time, Mayor Robert Walker was also pledging legal action against T-Rel’s as a public nuisance.

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But after a year that’s been a bit quieter, a club dubbed “Mista Naked’s” opened last weekend to huge crowds in the building where T-Rel’s operated. Along with another bar, Coach’s, where dozens of patrons were recently videotaped in the streets with beer and liquor, the new club has some downtown merchants up in arms.

“It’s starting all over again,” said Charles Beale, a downtown business owner. “If this is the type of policing we have in Vicksburg, we’re in big trouble.”

Harry Sharp, owner of Duff’s Tavern & Grille, said he almost went out of business a few years ago when a similar nightclub drove away his customers.

But Kenneth Johnson, the manager of the new club, doesn’t see it that way. His business drew a large crowd on opening night, but they stayed on his side of the street and didn’t disturb anyone else’s business, he said.

“There was a crowd out there, but it was regulated,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to cause a problem here for anybody’s business because I take extra precautions.”

Johnson said he hired five off-duty police officers to help control the crowds and traffic during his grand opening. The following night, he added three more.

“There was no fighting, no violence, nothing,” he said. “I’m in the entertainment business. I’m giving the young people something to see without going to Jackson, without paying 20 bucks.”

Robert Smith, whose own Attitudes nightclub generated significant opposition from downtown merchants when it opened, now finds himself leading the charge against the newcomer.

At a special meeting of the Main Street Board of Directors Wednesday, Smith showed video he took of the street outside Mista Naked’s last weekend, along with the footage of Coach’s from Oct. 28.

The videotape from Coach’s shows as many as 100 people gathered outside the club, many with what appear to be beer bottles, liquor bottles or plastic cups. At 2 a.m., closing time, Vicksburg police officers are shown arriving, with sirens blaring, to disperse the crowds.

The response from Laurence Leyens, a downtown developer and new member of the Main Street board, echoed the arguments he used months ago against Smith: “For someone like me as an investor, this is a totally different downtown from what we are trying to build.”

Police are also shown last weekend in the video blocking off Washington Street to help control traffic to Mista Naked’s during the grand opening party Friday night. Smith said the roadblock kept patrons from getting to his business.

Mayor Walker, who said he has not seen the tape, said he talked to police officers on duty Friday, the night of Mista Naked’s grand opening party, and was told that while there were a large number of people, no one was causing problems.

The mayor suggested that the large crowd outside might be a one-time phenomenon tied to the grand opening party, which was promoted by a radio station and fliers around town.

Saturday night, the day after the grand opening, Walker said he was told the bar had hired several additional security guards and no one was loitering outside.

If no laws were being broken, he said, there was probably little the police could, or should, do.

“You can’t just exclude people from gathering on the sidewalk,” Walker said. “They have a right of assembly.”

He added that the charges of people with open containers of alcohol are more serious and will be looked into.

“If there were open containers, then (Police) Chief (Mitchell) Dent will have to take that up with the officers responsible for enforcing that,” Walker said.

Dent, who also said he has not seen the tape, said police commonly offer their services to businesses for traffic control during grand openings and other big events.

As far as the violations outside Coach’s on Oct. 28, the police chief said officers routinely patrol the area at closing time to make sure everyone goes home in an orderly fashion, but that officers weren’t aware of any ordinance violations that happened earlier in the night.

The mayor said the reason he has not seen the tape is that Smith refused to drop it off at his office, and he has not been able to schedule time to review it with Smith present.

Jerry Stampley, the owner of Coach’s, said his brother, Edward, was managing the club for him due to health problems. But he said the club has adequate security and large crowds drinking outside are not a common occurrence.

“I don’t think anybody has any objections to him having a bar there, but if he can’t control his customers, something needs to be done,” Smith said.

Others at the meeting agreed.

Sharp said he thinks police are purposely letting violations slide while targeting others for enforcement.

He added that his son, a high school student, often meets friends in the parking lot of SuperValu, but they are routinely run off by police.

Sharp said disorder downtown hurts his business, an upscale restaurant and bar. And several business owners expressed fears of a replay of last year’s scenario, when they would come to work Monday morning to find that someone had vandalized their shop or urinated in their doorway.

“We have asked in the past for the city to start enforcing the ordinances and it did no good,” Beale said. “All we ask is that they enforce the existing ordinances and that should stop this kind of behavior.”