Monday, March 5, 2007
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
- from "Ode" by Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1874)
Suppose the undulating lifeblood of Lawrence's youth culture is its nightlife and music scene. Suppose this culture has the potential to live or to die as Lawrence changes and grows.
Exploring the words of the town's movers, shakers, and decision makers, we will take careful measure of their reassurances and their alarms about the youth culture's future.
On one end of the spectrum we will see a vision of a once gritty and vibrant scene chilled by the over-regulation of a well-meaning but ultimately misguided City Commission. In this vision-while the suburbs expand and property values rise-the musicians, artists and other roots of Lawrence's youth culture leave for cheaper, more accommodating scenes, like Kansas City.
One the other end we will see a vision of a scene remaining as dynamic as it ever was, fueled by waves of young people going out to drink, paying for concerts, forming bands and creating art-the supply continually replenished by the university.
Will either, or neither, vision come to pass? Let's grab our needles and poke, in search of the lifeblood.
A 'scary' regulation
Want to spook someone? Try sneaking up to a music venue owner, pressing lips to ear and whispering: "entertainment license."
Since summer, when City Hall brought up the possibility of creating a new licensing system that would give it more power to regulate venues and bars, club owners have been fearing that such a system could grant the city arbitrary power to shut down their establishments.
The licensing system was one of several ideas that initially sprang out of a public outcry for tighter regulations after one man was killed and another wounded by gunfire on Mass. Street following a concert at the Granada last February. Later in May, seven shots were fired inside Last Call. (Read our story "Bad Rap.")
As the City Commission has continued to debate ways to improve downtown safety, club owners have grown leery of the possibility of an entertainment license. They say they prefer Mayor Mike Amyx's simpler, recently proposed solution of a harsher penalty for someone caught near a drinking establishment with a gun and no conceal-carry permit.
An entertainment licensing system would require businesses that hold gatherings larger than a certain size to obtain a permit from the city. This permit would give the city more power to fine or shut down nightclubs it identifies as creating nuisances or other problems.
After the city unsuccessfully asked the state's Alcohol Beverage Control division for help in shutting down problem bars for non-liquor-related reasons, the prospect of an entertainment license recently grew more likely.
Club owners see this as a potentially overbroad law that's an outgrowth of the city's attempt to shut down one nightclub-Last Call, which has been associated with street violence and downtown gun seizures occurring on its Saturday hip-hop nights.
Jeff Fortier, owner of the Gaslight Tavern and longtime Lawrence promoter, echoes the sentiments of many club owners: "I think if they have a problem with Last Call, they should just say they have a problem with Last Call and work on that with Last Call. And I don't think the rest of us need to be penalized for that."
Although many club owners are quick to distance themselves from Last Call, its owner, Dennis Steffes, says he agrees with Fortier's sentiment. He says he would like to work more closely with the city to curb violence outside his club. He adds that all he can be held responsible for is what happens inside-and barring the shots fired in May, he says the club has been a safe place.
Mike Logan, owner of the Granada, says the city's apparent effort to punish clubs for trouble that happens outside their doors isn't fair.
"That shooting that happened across the street could've happened in front of a gas station or in front of Chipotle down the street or something," he says of the shooting that occurred on Mass. Street last February after a Granada concert.
"But the fact that the Granada was attached to it, that could be a call for my license : Your license could be in jeopardy for something like that that you really have no control over. So that's what scares me."
But Commissioner Dennis "Boog" Highberger says imposing regulations on clubs that are causing problems would be a reasonable action for the city to take.
"What other communities have done," Highberger says, "is they've gone, not looking at the alcohol serving aspect but the public gathering aspect and said that, 'OK, we've got a situation that we're having regular public gatherings at this place and it's potentially causing a problem, then we have a right to license that and regulate that.'
"If we do this, what I'd like to do is have something with a minimal-like $5, $10-licensing fee that doesn't impose any new requirements on somebody to start with, but if there are complaints associated with a facility, that would give us some authority to impose limits on hours, if necessary, or security controls, things like that-things that wouldn't be applicable to places that aren't causing any trouble."
The big chill
Club owners say they're concerned about what criteria the city would use to decide who is causing trouble. If the city started to over-regulate, the smartest business option might be to pack up and leave, Logan says.
"I feel like the concert venues are going to get lumped in with bad seeds, and, obviously, headline-getters," Logan says. "At some point it could scare off quite a number of operators. I could take this business to a number of different cities. I don't want to. I love Lawrence. I love having shows here."
"When the government has that much power, people don't trust to move into these communities," he says.
"It's very scary," adds Jacki Becker, longtime promoter and owner of Eleven Productions. "And it could-if taken the wrong way-shut down music in our community."
Fortier, of the Gaslight, says the passage of an entertainment license could lead him to ditch Lawrence and concentrate on his Kansas City interests.
"Kansas City seems to be a lot more supportive of the arts," he says. "They're a lot more flexible and there's a lot less bureaucracy in doing events in Kansas City. And at this point I see a lot more opportunities in Kansas City than I do in Lawrence, Kansas."
And Steffes of Last Call-who is currently involved in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city's smoking ban-is already questioning the legality of an entertainment license. He adds it would depend on how the law is written. Unlike some owners, he says that he wouldn't have a problem with rules imposed on his club, just so long as they're clear.
"If you're doing this with the specific purpose of being able, at will, to close an establishment, you're going to open yourself to lawsuits from every position possible, because this is restrictive and it falls under the restrictive trade issues," he says. "It's not going to be taken lightly.
"Now, if there are going to be, as one time was discussed, minimum standards for clubs," he says, "I'm not threatened by this at all. This does not threaten me when there is a legitimate type of an outline. In other words, you outline as to what we need to comply with, and give the opportunity for the businesses to comply with a reasonable standard of some kind, then if they don't, of course, you have recourse."
Highberger says the city has no intention of killing the music scene with regulations, and that a bigger threat to the scene is concertgoers staying home because they don't feel safe. While club owners say Amyx's proposal for harsher enforcement of current gun restrictions is a good solution, Highberger says it may not be enough to make people feel safe.
"People are afraid of what happens if we over-regulate downtown; I think there's danger the other way," he says. "If there's a perception that downtown is dangerous because people are bringing guns there, that has as big a chance, even more of a possibility, of killing the music scene than over-regulating, frankly."
Battle of the bland
For those in the "Lawrence nightlife is doomed" camp, a second, broader sign of the apocalypse is the wide-reaching effect of sprawl and the rise of Lawrence as a "bedroom community" combining with high downtown rent to rob Lawrence of its charms.
"I think the biggest story in Lawrence in the next decade is, 'Will it retain its local flavor?' " Mosiman of the Bottleneck says. Or will its culture succumb to the pervasive push toward uniformity?
Amid suburban-style growth in west Lawrence and reports of higher vacancy rates in older parts of town, Love Garden Sounds co-owner Kelly Corcoran talks of the rise of "people who give (downtown retail) lip service, go to Wheatfield's once a week, and go to the big chains."
Also, population growth is far outpacing its job growth-with the town gaining about 900 residents and 200 jobs a year-which means people are moving to Lawrence and not working here, says Marilyn Bittenbender, senior vice president/principal of the commercial real estate firm Grubb & Ellis/The Winbury Group.
These commuters, Bittenbender says, are spending less money eating out, shopping and going to concerts in town, while more active community members are leaving.
"There's a much higher incidence of community disengagement when you have commuters," she says. ":That's very scary for the community."
And with downtown commercial property values increasing over the past several years-though they held steady during the last year-Mosiman echoes the long-standing fear that downtown storefronts will soon be populated only by the large national chains that can afford to pay rent.
We built this city...
Even as they explain their fears, club owners are quick to counter themselves by pointing out that Lawrence still has a thriving scene, with a multitude of live venues, a number of local bands and artists gaining in popularity and the reality that-despite what else may change-the town's population of 25,000 KU students isn't going anywhere.
Nick Carroll, owner of the Replay Lounge and the Jackpot Music Hall, describes a nightlife scene that's taken some lumps in the past few years with a drop in business after the smoking ban and a lack of local bands that consistently attract crowds. But he says business is bouncing back on both fronts.
Becker of Eleven Productions says that while the number of venues in town may have spread crowds thin, the scene is as vibrant as ever.
"I think we still have the same amazing amount of venues that we've always had-and we have a ton for our size community," she says.
"That leads to artists having the opportunity to play in many, many different places many times over. So perhaps what's perceived as not the 'prestigious' local music scene that we potentially may have had 15 years ago, it's also because there are so many different places for these artists to play on a regular basis."
"I think part of the charm here is there are always new bands coming up, there's always, continually, rebuilding," he says.
"Some people would argue if the music scene of Lawrence has peaked or not. I don't really think of it that way," Pope says. "I think that Lawrence will always have a very diverse, interesting music scene. That's just because it's kind of built on that. I mean, you walk down Mass. Street and there are clubs all over. There's always music."