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VOL. 132 | NO. 104 | Thursday, May 25, 2017

Beale Street Cover Charge Cut, Larger Debate Remains

By Bill Dries

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The Saturday night summer cover charge on Beale Street is going from $10 to $5 next month. But the discussion about the Beale Street Bucks program is hardly over. And the crowd control measure is certain to raise longer-term questions about who controls the city-owned district.

The Beale Street Bucks cover charge goes from $10 on Saturday nights to $5 by Memphis City Council action. But the council’s examination of the spring-to-summer crowd control measure continues. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Memphis City Council members backed away from a vote Tuesday, May 23, on abolishing the bucks program altogether as proposed by council members Jamita Swearengen and Martavius Jones.

Swearengen, who then called for the cover cut, argued that the cover charge that goes to Beale Street merchants should instead go to City Hall and should be limited only to security costs in the district. She also moved for, and the council approved, an accounting of the money from the cover charge that the merchants association has been keeping that will now go to the council.

The council also voted Tuesday to form a Beale Street Task Force to consider alternatives to the crowd control measure and report to the council by September.

The panel is to include police brass, representatives of the Metropolitan Memphis Hotel & Lodging Association and the Beale Street Merchants Association as well as council members and the city administration.

Boyd said the task force is a path to an alternative to the cover charge “so that we can go out and explore other cities and find out solutions that we can bring back to the city of Memphis.”

“It gives us enough time to evaluate and see what we can do,” he said.

“And hopefully we can come up with a different solution because I’m not personally in favor of Beale Street Bucks even though I really understand exactly what you are saying,” Boyd told Mayor Jim Strickland.

Strickland said later that he likes the idea of a task force, although he sees it working off of the basic idea of a cover charge.

“I love getting everyone together and trying to improve the program,” he said. “We’re always open to improvement. All we’ve said is that the program as it is now works. We’ve never said the program is perfect.

“We’ll use the opportunity to talk about how good the current program is, but if there’s a better option we’re open to that,” Strickland added.

Boyd has said several times that he is tired of battling a perception that the cover charge is aimed at African-American patrons of Beale.

“It looks like we are profiling to keep people off the street,” he said again Tuesday.

Swearengen proposed the cover cut after a closed attorney-client meeting between the council and its attorney, Allan Wade. Wade’s legal opinion requested by council members is that the bucks program is legal despite concerns by some on the council about charging for admission to a public street.

Wade also said the council should “ratify” the program and that the cover charge should be “reasonably related to the cost of public safety” – the stated reason for the cover.

The council later voted to discuss the legal opinion in open session. But Wade declined to provide a written copy of his opinion citing pending litigation – a federal lawsuit filed by Beale Street Development Corp. director Lucille Catron and other plaintiffs against the city that claims Beale Street Bucks is racially discriminatory.

Catron talked Tuesday of merchants on the street who don’t accept the bucks. Joellyn Sullivan, owner of Silky’s, said Catron doesn’t accept the bucks at the Historic Daisy Theater, which is the headquarters of the BSDC.

The theater is supposed to be an interpretive center for the history and culture of Beale Street under terms of a court settlement that signaled the exit of the BSDC as the holder of the master lease from the city. Catron, however, is disputing that her husband, Randle Catron, signed the settlement shortly before his death. That is another lawsuit in Chancery Court contesting the settlement.

Catron has repeatedly told the council that the BSDC continues to hold the master lease. City attorneys have said repeatedly in federal and Chancery Court interrogatories that the BSDC no longer holds the master lease for the district.

Strickland steered clear of any comment on any issues in either lawsuit.

After the council vote, Strickland said he approves of the task force but doesn’t agree with dropping the cover charge to $5.

“It’s the massive overcrowding that is the challenge,” Strickland said. “A significant alteration of the program, I think, puts the public safety at risk and will cost the taxpayers more money because more police officers will have to be down there.”

Tuesday’s committee discussion at City Hall was the most vocal case made yet for both the program and the current status of Beale Street in nearly three months of council deliberations on the broader question of who controls the district.

Council members got detailed financials on the flow of money from the bucks program for the first time, which prompted more questions and the move away from abolishing the program.

But there remain significant differences.

“It’s not revenue,” Joellyn Sullivan told council members. “We do not keep any of the money.”

But council members have a different definition of revenue and see merchants in control of a fund that pays cash to the merchants for the vouchers, or coupons, given to those paying the cover charge.

Money not spent from those coupons became grants to local groups from the merchants. Most council members questioned why the money wasn’t coming back to or at least through City Hall.

“It is contrary for us to think we are collecting this money for the sake of public safety,” Jones said, noting that it doesn’t offset police overtime.

Council member Edmund Ford Jr. estimated only $3 of the $10 bucks goes to public safety, with the $7 rebate in coupons to be spent in Beale businesses going to the merchants when those coupons are used.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings showed videos of three stampedes on Beale Street before the bucks program was implemented. He defends the cover charge as necessary and estimates the cost to the police department without it goes up $11,000 per summer weekend.

In 2004, police began a policy of ordering those on the street after 3 a.m. to leave the district, go into a nightclub or face arrest. The city announced it was discontinuing the 3 a.m. sweep in June 2012, but nevertheless continued to use it.

The practice was contested in Memphis federal court and outlawed in a 2015 ruling by U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla.

McCalla concluded the practice “violated the constitutional rights of thousands of persons” because it was done when there was no “imminent threat to public safety.”

His ruling came in the form of a permanent injunction, with a court-appointed monitor watching to see the order is carried out.

McCalla also left an opening for the use of such sweeps.

“The court notes that the ordered injunction does not prevent the MPD from conducting normal police work or clearing Beale Street under appropriate circumstances where an imminent threat exists to public safety through the Beale Street area,” he wrote.

Several council members argued police could do the same in lieu of a cover charge if the street got too crowded.

Strickland said that wouldn’t be as effective as the cover charge.

“They tried that before and it did not work as well. They tried adding more police,” he said. “They tried adding more private security. All of those options have not worked as well together as Beale Street Bucks.”

He also noted that citizens pay for access to Riverside Drive during the three most popular events of the Memphis in May International Festival in Tom Lee Park.

But police also have closed access to Riverside Drive and Tom Lee Park in the past when attendance reached capacity.

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