Late-night alcohol feeds Five Points crime, neighbors say, as 2 a.m. bar debate rages

If Columbia bars were forced to close at 2 a.m., the first thing Savannah Willis would do is “go to Green’s (liquor store) and buy back-up liquor.”

For the first time since a citywide debate broke out last month over whether bars should close earlier, a college student joined the public discussion at a three-hour hearing at City Hall on Tuesday.

“I would love to say that people are good people and they’re not going to do stupid things, but they are, and they’re always going to be able to get alcohol,” said Willis, who identified herself to City Council members as a senior at the University of South Carolina. “I don’t think (closing bars) is the answer.”

Willis’ argument was echoed by more than a dozen people who said a bar curfew is not the solution to the problems being discussed, which include a pervasive drinking culture among college students, a shift in the balance of businesses in the Five Points entertainment district, and crime and safety in the residential neighborhoods surrounding Five Points.

Related story: Bar owners say USC has a drinking problem. Will a 2 a.m. closing time solve it?

Many residents who live near Five Points are pleading with city officials to close bars earlier to cut down on crimes that happen in the middle of the night that leave them “traumatized,” as neighborhood activist Kit Smith put it.

“Five Points has become what is known as an attractive nuisance,” said Smith, a former Richland County Council member who lives in the Wales Garden neighborhood and leads the Coalition of Five Points Neighborhoods. “The Five Points area has got sharks swimming in it. These are not the bars themselves. These are the people who are attracted there to prey on the children,” or the drunk college students who become victims of crimes such as rape and thefts.

The longer bars stay open, the more crimes happen near their homes, Smith and other residents of nearby neighborhoods argued.

“We can’t really do much about what goes on inside those bars unless we put a policeman inside every one,” Smith said. “But what we can do is follow the good sense and experience of other cities, because we know closing earlier reduces crime.”

Related story: Last call at 2 a.m.? Proposal could shut down Columbia bars earlier

But bar proponents say crime won’t decrease and could actually be harder to police if bars are forced to close at 2 a.m.

“You can have bars open where the police and local authorities can monitor the activity of university kids . . . or, (drinking) will continue to happen, regardless, in the neighborhoods that are so concerned about the bars in the first place,” said Sean McManus, who often works until 2 a.m. at his IT job and is a regular late-night customer of Bar None in Five Points.

About 30 people spoke to City Council’s public safety committee Tuesday, with about 100 people in attendance.

People on both sides of the issue blamed the youth drinking culture for the quality-of-life problems neighbors say they are dealing with.

For the pro-closing crowd, a bar curfew is a step toward a better quality of life for residents near entertainment districts.

On the other side, the pro-bar crowd argues the city shouldn’t punish people and businesses who aren’t a part of that problem. Even several residents of Five Points-adjacent neighborhoods spoke in favor of bars being able to stay open all hours.

Though the city’s closing-time ordinance – and special permits allowing some bars to stay open all hours – affects bars everywhere in the city, the public conversation has focused almost entirely on Five Points, its surrounding neighborhoods and the behavior of college students who frequent those bars.

The majority of the nearly two dozen bars that have permits to stay open past 2 are in Five Points.

City Council members are considering a proposal that would repeal those permits, forcing all bars to close at 2 a.m. A formal proposal, though, has not yet been brought for a council vote.

The public safety committee is expected to make a recommendation to the full council in coming weeks.