After growing concerns regarding safety in downtown Athens, the Clarke County Commission enacted a temporary moratorium on new bars and multi-family residential areas on Feb. 7.
By pausing certain development for one year, the commission will be able to conduct a long-term study of downtown’s safety.
Within one square mile of downtown, there are a total of 80 fully operating bars and more than 300 licensed alcohol establishments within the county, according to the Athens-Clarke County Finance Department. Chuck Moore, ACC financial services administrator, said approximately 27 liquor licenses have been issued between 2007 to 2017.
“As of today, there are 322 active alcohol licenses. In 2007, there were 295 active alcohol licenses,” Moore said.
In addition to the legislation being passed to ban new bars from opening in Athens, commissioners have taken a step back to address the fear of if there are too many bars downtown and the safety concerns that come with alcohol consumption and overpopulation.
Mayor Denson said Athens naturally has a large demand for bars, but she also doesn’t want the amount of bars to get “out of control.”
“We have so many bars because there is such a demand for them,” Denson said. “With even more students going into these bars, we just don’t want Athens to turn into the New Orleans of Georgia.”
Warren Southall, owner of Boar’s Head Lounge in downtown Athens, hopes the commission will rethink the temporary moratorium once game day season rolls around.
“There’s too many bars in the summer but not enough bars in the fall,” he said.
Southall said there is usually double the maximum occupancy of bar-goers wishing to get into the bars on an average game day. This overflow in customers could be remedied by extra bars to serve the crowd.
“When you get to game season, [the] occupancies [are] large as is, and fire marshals are strictly regulating bars,” Southall said. “Usually, there is twice the amount of people who want to get into those bars.”
As for Mitch Jordan, owner of Jerzees, On the Rocks and Moonshine Bar, the temporary moratorium will not make much of a financial effect on game days.
“I don’t think game days are going to change anything,” Jordan said. “There’s only one maybe two big game days where it makes a difference in the amount of bars we have. Definitely not enough to make a financial impact.”
Jordan said he believes the moratorium will potentially be beneficial in improving safety downtown.
“In my opinion, I believe it is a good first step. However, I believe it would need to be extended before we can see any real benefit,” Jordan said.
The primary objective of the legislation was to give the commission a chance to look over the overall well being of downtown.
“The moratorium is just in place so we can take a step back and look at the status quo of things we need to do such as changing ordinances. Are there any potential changes that need to be made to make things healthier along with other changes?” Denson said.
In order to see the state of downtown, the commissioners issued an independent study, conducted by Atlanta-based firm Rosser International, to look into the health of downtown.
“Basically, it’s a health and wellness study,” Denson said. “What my intent is to try to make downtown as safe and comfortable for everyone.”
The moratorium brought up two concerns from locals over the ethics of the legislation when it was proposed before the commission: the manner in which the proposal was presented and accusations of the temporary moratorium being a restriction on free trade.
After seeing the moratorium was set for the agenda on Feb. 7, Richie Knight, a downtown business owner and current mayoral candidate, said he took issue with the way the legislation was set on the agenda.
“I think for the first time ever I’m truly disappointed to be a business owner in downtown Athens specifically because I’m on the Athens Downtown Development Authority, the Board of the Chamber of Commerce, one of the most active members in this downtown community, and had no idea that this was on the table,” Knight said.
Denson said it is standard practice for lawmakers to avoid making the public aware of moratoriums because it would defeat the purpose of the legislation.
“All the commissioners were aware of the moratorium in advance and supported it,” Denson said. “Anytime you do a moratorium, you always want to do it without notice. Otherwise, if you were to say, ‘Oh we’re going to do a moratorium on bars in two weeks or three weeks, someone can rush down and get a permit, get started on it and move forward with it.”
Knight said the moratorium sent a “negative tone” to the community.
“I think it will send a negative tone to the city of Athens to potential business owners that want to open in Athens or grow in a sense,” Knight said. “I don’t think we should ever have a ban on any type of business.”
On other hand, Commissioner Jared Bailey said he believes the moratorium will be beneficial to other business owners, despite voting against the legislation.
“I think it actually sends a very positive vibe to people in the community. It shows we are paying attention to the safety of downtown,” Bailey said.
Bailey, who was also a co-owner of 40 Watt before becoming a commissioner, said it wouldn’t hold back potential bar owners in the process of beginning a business.
“It takes a lot of time to open a business if you’re doing it right,” Bailey said. “Sure, it’s not perfect capitalism, but it won’t end an individual’s possibility of owning a bar.”
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, Commissioner Jared Bailey's stance on the moratorium was misrepresented. The Red & Black regrets this error.