ABC Commission wants to sober up parties, curb violence
Posted September 19, 2013
Updated September 20, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — The July 13 party at the Wolf Creek Apartments in Raleigh certainly looks like it was a good time from the pictures. There were girls in bikinis, a pool, body painting with glow paint and red Solo cups of beer.
Promoted by G-Vegas magazine as "The Freak at the Creek," the event was, technically, a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Wake County. Tickets were $5 or $10 for VIP admission.
"We weren't really involved in it as much as we were recipients of a donation," said Amber Moore, director of community and corporate partnerships for the nonprofit.
State alcohol beverage laws strictly regulate large-scale events that serve beer, wine and liquor. To maneuver around those regulations, the sponsor billed the party as a fundraiser and obtained a special one-time permit from the state available to nonprofits. The permits typically are meant for an event that the nonprofit is hosting, but ABC Commission staffers say they have seen an increasing number of nonprofits lending their names to "fundraisers" that are nothing more than parties in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.
The appeal of the arrangement is obvious: The Wake Boys and Girls Club got $2,500, G-Vegas got to throw a legitimate party at an apartment complex that caters mostly to students at North Carolina State University and students got to blow off some steam at the end of summer.
Asked if that's how special one-time ABC permits should be used, North Carolina ABC Commission Chairman Jim Gardner said "absolutely not." The commission is an independent agency headed by a three-member board appointed by the governor that is responsible for regulating the sale of alcohol and setting alcohol policy in the state.
In an interview in his office this week, Gardner, a former North Carolina lieutenant governor, talked about the commission's efforts to tighten enforcement around certain types of permits. Underage and excessive drinking on college campuses was at the top of his agenda. Violence at private clubs – bars that are supposed to enforce membership requirements – has also caught his eye and was the subject of a recent letter to owners of those bars. Improper use of special one-time permits is another area getting attention.
"Henceforth, that's not the way we'll be proceeding," Gardner said of the Wolf Creek party. The commission has already flagged certain nonprofits and locations for extra scrutiny due to a history of hosting events that flout the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
"The Freak at the Creek" seems to have been a harmless event, although it did generate two "loud party" calls to Raleigh police and required at least one officer to be on the scene in the wee hours of the morning of July 14 to provide crowd control.
That's not always the case.
A nightclub at 4075 Gumbranch Road in Jacksonville lost its ABC permits in July. Weeks later, Open Arms of Eastern North Carolina applied for and received special one-time nonprofit permits for the same location. On Labor Day weekend, there was a fatal shooting in the former club's parking lot.
"We had an event there," confirmed Calvin Harvey, who runs the nonprofit which, according to its state incorporation filing, "was launched due to the number of teens and adolescents that lack the structure and positive enforcement to become productive citizens in their community."
Harvey said he thought another party at the same location led to the violence. However, the ABC Commission's permitting system shows no other ABC permits for that address and date. Open Arms had applied for events for every weekend in September.
A Sept. 12 letter from the state ABC Commission informs the property owner that the location "has been deemed no longer suitable to hold ABC permits."
Violence a growing concern
The shooting in Jacksonville is far from the only violence in connection with establishments that serve alcohol.
"I have been stunned by the violence occurring at some locations holding ABC permits," Gardner wrote in a letter to 1,000 bar owners on Sept. 12. In the past month, the commission has issued "summary suspensions" to two private clubs – essentially foreclosing their ability to serve alcohol – due to alcohol-fueled violence at those locations.
While most bars and restaurants operate without incident, it is not hard to find examples of problems in the ABC Commission's files.
The Pitt Bar and Lounge on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, for example, turned in its permits in July when an inspection by Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement agents found two employees who should have been banned from the property. Those two employees had been involved in a shooting with a stolen gun in 2012.
"Private clubs seem to be the area that's really gotten out of control," Gardner said.
North Carolina's laws with regards to alcohol are an often complex and loophole-riddled set of regulations that blend a framework informed by the religion-driven temperance movement of the 20th century with occasional nods toward how alcohol is consumed in modern settings.
Strictly speaking, the statutes don't allow businesses to operate as stand-alone bars. Rather, bars must operate as part of a restaurant that serves food or as a "private club." Such clubs must have membership rosters and can serve only members and their guests.
"We're not having these kind of problems in restaurants that I'm aware of," Gardner said.
Starting this month, the commission is going to tighten scrutiny of private clubs, making sure that membership lists are in order and anyone consuming alcohol on the premises is either a member or guest of a member.
"I feel like we're getting lumped in with some of these clubs that are letting in a more thuggish crowd," said Mike Lombardo, a part owner of Lucky B's Around the Corner, a private club on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. "We're a friendly kind of neighborhood bar."
Lombardo said he was taken aback when he received Gardner's letter because his bar hasn't been the scene of the kind of violence that prompted the crackdown. His bar, he said, already has to be careful with advertising, and while he has followed the rules all along, ensuring his membership rosters are ready for inspection is one more hassle that he has to deal with that restaurant owners don't.
Time spent checking rosters and making sure drinkers have their membership cards, Lombardo said, could be better spent focusing on places where there is a problem.
"I'm letting in the right crowd," he said. "If I see the wrong crowd happening, I'm going to change it."
Broader changes needed
Like many bar owners, Lombardo said it may just be time for the "private club" conceit to be written out of law and a new, more straightforward statute to take its place. That, he said, would help out both bar owners and those trying to enforce the laws.
"That's something the legislature is going to have to look at very carefully," Gardner said.
He said the commission will develop a number of suggested changes to the state ABC statutes for lawmakers to consider next year. Among them will be a request to reverse budget cuts that threaten to slash ALE's 83-agent force by a third.
Although local police and sheriffs can enforce ABC laws, and some jurisdictions have small police forces run by local ABC boards, Gardner said ALE agents are needed to regulate what is a $6 billion industry in North Carolina. ALE agents also specialize in undercover operations that identify underage drinking, find businesses that "over-serve" patrons and enforce other areas of the ABC statute.
Gardner says his commission is helping ALE where it can, taking on some more of the administrative tasks in order to free up agents for field work. But he said lawmakers need to tighten or rewrite statutes that are too vague or confusing.
Holding up a dog-eared, book-marked copy of the inch-thick book of ABC statutes and regulations, Gardner said, "I have questions all over the place and things we want to discuss with the General Assembly."