Five Points bar owners say the popular University of South Carolina student hangout is much safer more than a year after a stray bullet paralyzed freshman Martha Childress.
A bar the Richland County sheriff said attracted street gang members has closed. A new Columbia police chief has led efforts for more lighting and an area where patrons can catch a cab or bus.
No major incidents have been reported since Childress’ shooting. Still, more solutions can be found, some USC officials say.
In an effort to find those solutions, USC researchers have started collecting data for a report to suggest ways to reduce violence in Five Points and better understand how students’ behavior affects their ability to stay in school. Recent student surveys found more freshmen were heading to bars.
The study, which is also looking at how student behavior affects businesses and law enforcement, is dubbed “Time for Change.”
“There was a visceral reaction (after the Childress shooting),” said Leslie Wiser, a former assistant Columbia police chief and FBI agent who chairs USC’s Carolina Community Coalition. “This ‘Time for Change’ study is an effort to bring all of those ideas together and come up with comprehensive recommendations. ... If we take care of violent crime, other problems will be taken care of.”
As part of the study, a team of USC graduate students, led by Wiser and USC substance abuse prevention director Rhonda Dinovo, is gathering information on zoning, business licenses, transportation, ambulance and crime statistics. Researchers also are examining some numbers behind drinking — including how alcohol pricing and the concentration of bars affects drinking.
The final report will include a cost analysis for businesses, students, the university and community on the alcohol-related incidents.
“It’s not just about how much money is being spent by the customer, but how much is being spent because of negative consequences for sales, student retention and law enforcement,” Dinovo said. “We want to move away from anecdotal suggestions. We need data.”
The report — which will be shared with university, government and business leaders – should be ready when students return to classes next fall.
Five Points bars owners, who had not heard about the research before being contacted by a reporter for The State newspaper, said they welcomed potential new solutions. But they questioned the timing of the research when violence has dropped in the popular entertainment district.
“I have been there more than 20 years, and the past two years have been safe as it has ever been,” said Brian Glynn, owner of the Village Idiot.
‘Impacts whole community’
USC freshman Childress was waiting for a cab in Five Points in October 2013 when she was struck by a stray .40-caliber bullet. Police say the shot was fired during an argument that was unrelated to Childress.
The Greenville native was paralyzed in the shooting, which capped a spate of violence in the district.
Dinovo said concerns about Five Points nightlife had existed “for sometime before Martha.” But the shooting “was a wake-up call that we need to do something different.”
Suggestions and fixes followed.
USC re-started a shuttle for students. Lights and security cameras were added around the district. The pickup area for cabs and buses was set aside for patrons.
USC president Harris Pastides also recommended transforming Five Points into a pedestrian-only area on weekend nights, a move rejected by merchants.
“My mission is to provide a better experience and take better care of our students,” Pastides said last month. “So that is what I hope is the main outcome (of the study).”
That kind of talk has created suspicion among some Five Points merchants about the research, a joint venture between USC’s criminal justice department and its office of substance-abuse prevention.
“I don’t see USC doing anything that would not be advantageous to what the school wants,” said Joe Wilson the owner of two Five Points bars, not to be confused with the Lexington County congressman.
USC study leaders say they are not pushing for specific solutions.
“We want these businesses to thrive, and we want our students to be safe in it,” Dinovo said. “This can be a win-win situation.”
But USC will make its own decisions, based on suggestions from the “Time for Change” report, school spokesman Wes Hickman said.
In addition to the Childress shooting, study leaders said they were spurred by the findings of annual surveys of USC students and their drinking.
The percentage of freshmen who said they most frequently drank at bars more than doubled to 29 percent in 2013 from 14 percent in 2012.
As a result of the spike in underage drinking in bars among USC students, the study also will examine the use of fake identifications.
“This remains a challenge,” Dinovo said. “We want to see if social media plays a role.”
The role of social media in promoting drink specials at bars also will be examined. “We’ll take a look at ... advertising and certain nights of week to see if crime or ambulance calls go up,” Dinovo said.
The study will examine how other college towns handle security in entertainment areas that are popular with students.
USC plans to share the report findings with Benedict College and Allen University, other colleges near Five Points.
“This impacts the whole community,” Dinovo said.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, who started this spring, embraces the study. Officers attended the study group’s first meetings, discussing the work with USC officials.
Already, the city has added more lights and trimmed trees to increase the coverage area of Five Points security cameras. Police also worked with merchants in designating the area for taxis and buses – even though it meant giving up some of the district’s scarce parking spaces.
“By no means are we sending up a flag saying ‘Mission Accomplished,’ ” Holbrook said. “It would be sticking your head in the sand if you’re ignoring a study on what you can do better.”
Bar owners praised Holbrook’s willingness to work with merchants. Holbrook came to Columbia from another college town — Huntington, W.Va., home of Marshall University.
Jon Sears, who owns four bars in Five Points and is vice president of the Five Points Association, said he notices more officers on sidewalks and intersections, rather than in bars looking for underage drinkers.
“The criminals see more police patrolling Harden (Street),” Sears said, “and don’t do anything.”
Another big change came in May with the closing a bar whose patrons led to many problems in Five Points, according to authorities.
Merchants credited Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott’s successful efforts to close The Library, a bar on the north side of the district, for a drop in violent crime. Lott said the club was frequented by street gang members.
“Closing it did not solve everything, but it sure has solved a lot,” Lott said. “This is a completely different place then when (Childress) got shot.”
Sears said The Library’s demise improved the atmosphere in the district.
“It was a bad scene,” he said. “It’s been trending in the right direction.”
Holbrook has continued to send the message that Lott sent with The Library. Police forced a bar in the Vista, Lucky 13, to close last month after repeated criminal activity.
“We set a tone,” he said. “If you don’t run a place right, we will shut you down.”
While they are pleased with the work of police and other efforts that merchants have made to increase safety, Five Points bar owners said they also want to be involved in USC’s research.
“Seems like a foolish study without it,” said Glynn, the Village Idiot owner.
Dinovo and Wiser say business owners will be included in the newly started study.
Still, Glynn questioned the motivation of the study, launched more than a year after the Childress shooting.
“Things have changed,” Glynn said. “We have a new police chief who understands the dynamics of the area.
“It seems like we have gotten away from problems from the past couple of years. Why would you keep putting a negative story in everyone’s face?”