The percentage of first-year University of South Carolina students drinking in bars — the vast majority underage — nearly tripled from 2012 to 2014, from 14 percent to 39 percent.
That disturbing change was discussed in court Wednesday during a hearing on whether a Five Points bar, The Roost, should be given a permanent liquor license by the state. The permit for the bar, formerly known as Pour House and operating under a temporary license, is opposed by two University Hill neighborhood residents who claim Five Points partying is out of control and a danger to the students and nearby residents.
The dramatic rise in underage drinking in bars — mostly in Five Points — was logged in a report funded by USC following the shooting of freshman Martha Childress in 2013. It was entitled “Time for Change.”
The report’s author, USC criminal justice instructor and former Columbia assistant police chief Les Wiser, testified Wednesday that the finding was “alarming.”
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The report focused on freshman and other first-year students, and did not poll other USC students who might be underage.
The rise coincided with the establishment of a free, late-night university shuttle from on-campus student housing to the nearby shopping and entertainment district, the report said. The shuttle “enabled” underage drinkers while at the same time providing them with a safe ride home.
A spokesman for the university said the shuttles are still running.
“The service was established in the wake of a violent incidents in and around Five Points,” Jeff Stensland said. “Student safety is a top priority at USC and on balance, we believe that providing safe transportation to reduce the risk of our students becoming victims of crime or attempting to drive while intoxicated is important. We have a broad array of educational efforts in place designed to counter irresponsible drinking.”
The two-day court battle over The Roost’s permit — which concluded Wednesday — is part of a larger effort led by neighborhood groups to put a lid on the number of Five Points bars, crack down on underage drinking, curb student misconduct and even ban fast food chains.
Wednesday’s hearing before Administrative Law Court Judge Deborah Durden included lurid testimony of residents from nearby neighborhoods of rampant vandalism, violence, drunkenness and public sex. Most of the incidents occur as students trickle back from Five Points to campus or to nearby rental homes.
Neighbors call the migration to and from campus and Five Points the “Capstone fire drill” after a prominent on-campus dormitory.
“We need help,” University Hill resident April Lucas said.
Lucas told of a besotted student banging on the door of her Laurens Street home in the early morning hours thinking her husband was one of his drinking buddies.
“He was blacked-out drunk,” Lucas said.
Also, a drunken student fell into her neighbor’s pool in the dead of winter, and another had picked up a concrete urn and bashed it into a car’s roof and windshield.
University Hill Neighborhood Association President Tom Gottshall added that students walking on top of neighbors’ parked cars was commonplace, and one young couple had been caught having sex on the hood of a neighbor’s car.
Most of the problems are caused by the sheer numbers of students and bars, the residents said.
USC’s student population has spiked from 19,765 undergraduates in 2008 to 26,362 today. And in about a one-half mile area, Five Points has 23 bars, 18 of which have special permits to stay open past 2 a.m. six nights a week. All bars must close at 2 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning.
“The concentration of bars has reached a critical point,” Gottshall said, noting that students each night pack the bars from Thursday through Saturday and scores more line up outside to get into the more popular clubs.
“There’s an increasing number of students just milling in the streets,” he said.
‘Its history is the worst’
Dick Harpootlian, who lives in Wales Garden near Five Points and is the attorney for the University Hill residents, noted that “bars” is actually a misnomer.
South Carolina law allows liquor to be sold for on-premise consumption only in “restaurants, private clubs and inns,” he said. Very few of the bars in Five Points are primarily restaurants, he said.
‘Why isn’t the Department of Revenue (which issues liquor licenses) auditing them?” he asked.
Mike Montgomery, attorney for The Roost owner Adam Ruonola and manager Stephen Bland, noted that none of the incidents related by the neighbors were related to The Roost, which has been open since October.
And Ruonola has noted that the bar has increased security, sophisticated surveillance cameras and specialized equipment for checking IDs. It even offers free food and Uber rides to customers who might have had too much to drink at the end of the night, he has said.
But Harpootlian has argued there are still financial ties between the present owners of Five Points Roost and the former owners of the Pour House, which carried a long list of code violations, underage drinking and arrests.
“Its history is the worst,” Gottshall said.
The two sides have until March 15 to offer closing briefs, with a decision to come shortly after, Durden said.
A separate permit hearing on another bar owned by Ruonola and Bland, Rooftop, will follow that ruling.