Can't Boogie No More

When Jay Winborn lived in Miami, no nightclub closed before 5 a.m. Most places, the night was just getting started around then. Some clubs didn't shut down until noon the next day. This is just how things were. Not only in Miami, where he lived for five years, but pretty much all over.

Winborn knows this because he is a DJ, an occupation that has allowed him to witness firsthand how dance clubs operate in cities around the country and around the world. Before he moved back to Dallas, there were plenty of times when he'd pack up his records just in time to grab some lunch.

"I know there is kind of a misconception by some people in the city that people out late at night are troublemakers and stuff like that, and it's just not the case," Winborn says. He spins records Thursday nights at Club Clearview, and Fridays and Saturdays at Seven. "There is a massive amount of people that like to go out and stay out late on Saturday night. They're not doing anything bad. They're going out to have a good time."

In Dallas, however, that good time has a time limit. Under Chapter 14 of the city code, dancing at nightclubs isn't allowed after 4 a.m., and only then if the club has paid the $1,400 annual fee for a late-hours dance hall permit and been approved by the review board, as well as the health, fire and police departments. Oh, and if the backgrounds of the club's owners, their spouses, their employees and everyone else remotely connected with the enterprise checks out with the proper authorities. Then you can dance as much as you want--until 4 a.m., of course.

For now, that is. Winborn is worried--and so are most other DJs, nightclub owners and their customers--because of the rumor he's heard that the city is actively pursuing a revision of Chapter 14 that would suspend all late-hours dance hall permits. Except it's not exactly a rumor: Mayor Laura Miller and the Dallas Police Department are indeed investigating the potential outcome of just such an action, a move that would affect 20 or so nightclubs.

"Anything that makes our job easier, you know, we'd like to see," says Lieutenant Vincent Golbeck, who works out of the DPD's Central Division, which handles Deep Ellum. "I'd rather be using resources elsewhere after 2 a.m. than just in a two or three block area. And it's not just in Deep Ellum. It's citywide, in all the different entertainment areas."

Here's the way it shakes out: During one of the mayor's new accountability meetings, formed in the wake of the revelation that Dallas is No. 1 among major U.S. cities for all crime, Miller asked the police department what she and the city council could do to help stem the tide, specifically in Deep Ellum. The department suggested removing all late-hours dance hall permits, citing their long-held contention that those venues improperly sapped police resources that could better be used elsewhere. Miller then asked City Attorney Madeleine Johnson to see how they could go about doing that. Everyone basically agrees on this version of events.

This is as far as it's gone so far. A new draft of Chapter 14 doesn't exist yet, and the issue hasn't appeared on the council's agenda. In all likelihood, any decision will wait until next month, after the new city budget is approved. Before that happens, the discussion will make its way through the public safety committee, headed by council member Dr. Elba Garcia.

"It's one of the many things we are looking into to see if we can pinpoint, 'Is there crime coming out of it?'" Garcia says. "The police department is working--and this is what we asked them at the meeting, to please put in a paper, OK, what are the pros and the cons? Late-hour permits might not have any problem. I hear some people took it as we're going to go after them. And the reality is that's not the case right now."

It's that "right now" that is bothering nightclub owners. Don Nedler, one of the owners of the Lizard Lounge and the current president of the Hospitality Association of Dallas Inc. (HADI), says he learned about the results of the meeting from a city council member, whom he declines to name. He then called the council's John Loza and Veletta Lill, both of whom confirmed what he'd heard. He was floored. Nedler says if the Lizard Lounge lost its late-hours permit it would be "a disaster."

"I'll just tell you right now: It would put me out of business," Nedler says. "Now bear in mind, I've been in the same location for 12 years, I've never had a violation, and out of the blue, because the mayor said, 'Hey, that sounds like a great idea,' I could lose my after-hours permit and be out of business. If I had to close at 2, nobody's gonna pay a $10 or $15 cover after 12."

Michael Morris, who owns a handful of venues, including Seven and One, and is HADI's secretary, agrees. At Seven, for example, he says it's "much busier after 2:30," since customers show up after they've had dinner and drinks, maybe having hit a few other clubs on the way.

But Morris and Nedler, and other club owners such as Blue's Keith Black, aren't opposed to the possible abolition of the late-hours dance hall permits simply because of lost revenue. After all, they can only serve water, juice and soft drinks after 2 a.m., and a significant amount of their clientele generally shows up before then. They think the city is inviting more problems if they institute the new closing hours. There will be more illegal parties in warehouses and parking lots, they say, more problems on the streets since a few thousand people will be leaving the clubs at the same time, instead of staggered over a couple of hours. On top of that, it won't answer the question--How do we stop loitering in Deep Ellum?--that the police seem to think it will.

"The problems they're having in Deep Ellum, which is where this all stemmed from, this has nothing to do with after-hours," Nedler says. "This has to do with people who don't even go to clubs anyway. The problem they have in Deep Ellum are people on the street. The problem establishments in Deep Ellum don't have after-hours permits. They don't have dance hall permits at all. They're bars. And they can stay open after 2." Bars can stay open as late as they want; they just can't serve alcohol after 2 a.m.

He's right. The clubs in Deep Ellum currently under police scrutiny--Nairobi Sports Bar and Main Street Sports Bar--will not be affected by the removal of late-hours dance hall permits. Even if they were, there are already mechanisms in place to do away with problem businesses. Chapter 14 provides, as Nedler says, "about 10 different ways" to revoke dance hall permits. There is no need for a blanket approach to the problem--just more vigilance paid to the existing solution. This is the case HADI intends to make to the mayor, though they haven't been able to schedule a meeting with her yet.

And even though Miller initially agreed to look into the removal of the late-hours permits, she's still the supporter HADI is counting on the most. Nedler and Morris remember how she backed the group a few years ago when an attempted end-around by a few topless bars on Northwest Highway had the city council looking into a similar policy. They hope once Miller hears both sides of the issue, she'll decide against such a strong measure. In their more optimistic moments, they even hope she'll do away with the time provision altogether--which the city government of Houston did in 1999 when facing a similar situation.

"Let's just stop and analyze what we're talking about," Morris says. "We're talking about people dancing. We're not talking about, what do you call it, suggestive, erotic dancers dancing for you or any performance of that type of dancing. We're talking about a person, a customer, being able to dance. We're not talking about much. I just don't see how you can draw the line and say, 'You can't dance after 4 a.m.' If you want to dance after 4 a.m., you gotta go home and dance. But if you want to bowl, you can damn sure bowl."

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain