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October 10, 2012

Search on for long-term solutions to Five Points’ problems

After heightened security and peaceful weekend, meetings and forums are in the works as the district struggles with changing atmosphere.

After a weekend crackdown in Columbia’s Five Points, those interested in the entertainment district’s success are searching for long-term solutions to problems.

Those issues include loitering, managing sidewalk space, excessive drinking and how to handle the 18- to 20-year-old crowd that comes to the area to socialize but is not old enough to go inside the bars.

“Of course, we want Five Points to be a destination,” said Merritt McHaffie, executive director of the Five Points Association. “We just need to make sure the people who are coming down here are here to enjoy Five Points in the right way.”

By most accounts, the Columbia Police Department’s handling of Saturday night in Five Points was successful after it brought in an almost unprecedented show of force for a weekend night.

Police arrested 41 people on 63 different charges, but no one was sent to a hospital or fired a gun into a crowd – problems from two weeks earlier. More than 8,000 people flooded the area until bars closed at 2 a.m.

The police department kept the peace by paying 50 officers more than $11,000 in overtime, blocking off some streets late and erecting an observation tower by the fountain. Most, however, say that is not a long-term solution.

When asked if it was sustainable, Chief Randy Scott said, “Obviously not. We need to take a serious look at the priorities for Five Points.”

Over the next couple of weeks, city officials, police, Five Points merchants, residents from surrounding neighborhoods and representatives from four nearby colleges will gather to share ideas and find answers.

The Five Points Association is planning a meeting this month so city officials and police can address concerns of business owners and neighbors, McHaffie said. The association promised to hold the meeting in the wake of an outbreak of violence on Sept. 23 that included gunshots and two mob assaults.

A date soon will be set, McHaffie said. It will be open to the public, but the purpose will be to address very specific issues, she said.

USC student government president Kenny Tracy held a forum Tuesday afternoon to hear from students on the Five Points issue. He asked USC president Harris Pastides and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin not to attend so students could have a candid discussion.

Fewer than 20 students attended the forum, but the discussion was detailed. Among the issues addressed were panhandlers, areas where students don’t feel safe, and a lack of venues for young adults who are not 21. One student said Five Points needed to become more of a music scene rather than a drinking scene.

Tracy said he will meet this week with Pastides and Benjamin to share students’ concerns and ideas for change. He also said he is reaching out to student body presidents at Benedict College, Allen University and Columbia College because students from those schools also have an interest in Five Points.

Chris Blackwood, a senior who lives in an apartment near Five Points, said the extra cops on Saturday made him feel safer. But he also thought they were too aggressive in asking people to move if they stopped on the sidewalks to talk or wait for friends.

“People end up spread out, so you stop and wait,” Blackwood said. “It made it hard to meet up with people because if you stood there for five minutes you were being told to move out.”

Others were more critical of the police.

Alex Waelde, a USC senior who runs the DrinkingTicket Twitter account that alerts students to police presence in bars or on city streets, said the police overreacted to the Sept. 23 violence. He said those kinds of crimes are not the norm for Five Points.

“There’s going to be one weekend, two weekends, maybe three weekends where something is going to happen, but that doesn’t mean we need to turn it into a military zone down there,” Waelde said. “Everyone is really upset that the police solution to all of this is to strong-arm patrons until you ruin the businesses.”

But Scott said he has to plan for any scenario that can happen. And when thousands of people, including many who are drunk, gather in one place, lots of things can go wrong. And the crowds swell after USC home games, like the one Saturday.

The most challenging time for police is on Friday and Saturday nights between 12:30 a.m. and 2 a.m., he said. He encourages those with an interest in Five Points to visit it during those hours.

“You can’t come at 10 and stay to 12:30 to feel like you have the pulse of Five Points,” he said.

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