Stores seen as key to cut beer-crime ties|[03/01/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 2, 2008

Tom Hartwell

Restricting the hours on beer and wine cooler sales at convenience stores without changing the way the businesses are run might be the necessary approach city officials need to take to cap late-night drinking problems, Mayor Laurence Leyens has told store operators.

But, “I don’t want it to adversely affect the in-city merchants and end up with a bunch of empty buildings,” Leyens said, reacting to comments from two merchants who said eliminating beer sales on Sundays and banning sales of single beers would hurt business.

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Earlier this month, Leyens and the Board of Aldermen were given statistics they believe directly link crime to late-night drinking. At that time, police suggested ways to curb problems that have resulted in fighting, noise complaints, DUIs and even homicides.

“We’re going to have to make changes in order to change outcomes,” Police Chief Tommy Moffett said.

Leyens and other city officials said Friday that research into other cities and state laws are ongoing, so no decision date has been set.

Based on suggestions from Moffett and Deputy Chief Richard O’Bannon, Leyens has proposed six changes to current drinking ordinances. Backing up cut-off times for alcohol sales at bars — from the current across-the-board 2 a.m. — to midnight on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends is a change officials feel is necessary to combat the problems. That, however, would not apply to casinos or bars with resort status, which includes most along Washington Street downtown.

New rules would also limit times in which people may purchase beer and light wine at convenience stores, venues police say people go to continue the party after bars close. Leyens has suggested a cut-off that reflects bar closings — midnight Monday through Thursday and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Earlier closing times on beer sales at convenience stores would be welcomed by Blake Nasif, an owner of Suds ‘n’ Smokes on Halls Ferry Road, who began closing his business earlier to cut down on loitering.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “I actually started closing at midnight during the week.”

Another merchant, Jamal Khouri, who owns Fastway at Cherry and Clay streets, also closes his shop at midnight, a move he made to discourage late-night loitering. He said he wants to work with the city to resolve crime problems, but the methods must be reasonable.

Eliminating Sunday beer sales, a change Leyens said would merely mimic state laws already placed on liquor stores, is not something merchants are willing to do, Nasif and Khouri said.

“I sell a lot of beer on Sunday,” Nasif said. “I don’t know why that is, but people buy more beer on Sunday.”

Khouri said driving beer out of city convenience stores on Sundays will hurt merchants who depend primarily on beer and cigarette sales and can’t rely on income from unsteady gas prices.

“You’re going to take our business right here and give it to the county,” he said.

Leyens said it’s important for the city to receive input from merchants before changing ordinances that could affect their businesses.

“We’ve got a real problem here, and we want you to help us resolve it,” he said.

Another change Leyens has proposed is eliminating single beer sales, something police believe is a direct result of people breaking laws relating to driving under the influence and open containers. Allowing a customer to purchase one beer as opposed to six or more, Leyens indicated, increases his or her chance of drinking on the premises.

“In effect, you’re becoming a bar at a gas station,” he said.

Most gas stations in Vicksburg promote single sales of beer by offering coolers of ice with various sizes of beers in the front of the stores. City Attorney Nancy Thomas, who is researching state alcohol laws and looking at what has worked in other cities, said single beer sales have successfully been eliminated in such places as Flowood, Ridgeland and Starkville. She said the change here would not allow the sale of anything of fewer than 50 ounces as a single sale.

“Single beers — that’s one of my biggest sellers — the 24-ounce cans,” Nasif said. “People come in and buy one, maybe two beers. It would hurt sales,” he said.

Late at night, convenience stores, especially those closer to downtown, become a place where people gather and crime is rampant, according to statistics and comments from city officials.

Moffett cited a station at Mission 66 and Clay Street as one where police have repeatedly answered calls. Its owner, George Shaibi, told officials that the crime his store attracts comes from other places, such as bars and clubs. He has followed suit with other stores and closed his doors earlier and said he has increased lighting and security to try to ensure safety.

“The safer it is, the more customers we get,” he said.

Leyens said focusing on the times people have access to alcohol is the most reasonable answer.

“The majority of problems happen late at night,” he said. “Instead of telling them how, we can say when they’re going to sell.”

Khouri said the price would be huge, but possibly worth it.

“If you think the crime will stop — if it does, we’re happy,” he said. “We’re willing to do anything.”

Officials also hope to change the law to no longer allow anyone younger than 21 to enter places that sell alcohol. Under current state law, people older than 18, but younger than 21 are allowed to enter and drink, if in the presence of a parent or guardian.

Addressing problems with neighborhood clubs, within 300 feet of a residential area, is another approach city officials are discussing. Leyens would like to require any place defined as such to close at 10 every night, which would reverse a 2004 agreement that allowed five existing businesses to stay open until 2 a.m. Even though only one of those businesses, Anderson’s Cafe on First North Street, continues to operate, complaints from neighbors and police calls have increased, Moffett has said.

A shooting was also reported at about midnight Dec. 27, when Doc Hall III, 41, 812 Clark St., was standing outside the club at 807 First North St. He was shot once in the back when someone in a car driving by opened fire. Police have continued to keep a close watch on the club.

Just Thursday night at 9, a search of the bar resulted in the arrest of a bartender when police confiscated 13 bottles of liquor. Because the bar has a permit to sell only beer, Moffett said the establishment was in violation and the bartender was charged with sale and possession with intent to sell liquor without a permit. Police also confiscated a handgun that apparently had been dropped by a customer. He said Friday police will continue to investigate.

Yolande Robbins, who owns Robbins Funeral Home at the corner of Main and First North streets, said loud music from Anderson’s is a frequent disturbance, but she has fond memories from when the business was a hamburger stand.

Growing up across the street in the 1950s, she watched Anderson’s get built and remembers the first owners.

“They had the best hamburgers in the world.”

The cafe was a meeting place for civil rights workers during 1964’s “Freedom Summer,” when students organized voter registration drives for black Mississippians.

“It was probably the first place in Vicksburg where integration was tried in the modern era,” Robbins said.

The club holds an important place in the history of Vicksburg’s black community, said Gary Baldwin, editor of the New Times, which has an office on the same block as Anderson’s. The office, on the northeast corner of Main and First North, is also Baldwin’s residence.

Baldwin and Robbins said the club’s noise and patrons have contributed to disturbances in the immediate area, also home to four churches, Robbins Funeral Home and a school.

“It’s the loud noise, shooting, drug selling, drinking, garbage strewn about, music,” Baldwin said. “Anderson’s Cafe is not responsible for all this, but it contributes to it.”

Charles Clark, who owns Anderson’s, said disturbances inside his club have been rare and he is not responsible for what happens outside the door.

“It’s become a juke joint,” Robbins said.

Longtime residents of the neighborhood have met several times with Moffett, Baldwin said. “Each time, he has given assurance that assigned patrols would increase.”

Robbins said she has tolerated the noise, but that in the past year, it seems to have worsened.

“I think it draws an element that might not cause any trouble on the premises, but certainly in terms of who it attracts and what’s done openly on the street, it’s a magnet for that behavior,” she said. “There’s drug traffic in the neighborhood, everybody knows that.”

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Robbins said. “It was just a lovely place, and one of the few places in my time where blacks could go.”