VOL. 132 | NO. 107 | Tuesday, May 30, 2017
City Council Members: Beale Bucks Evolving
By Bill Dries
Beale Street’s new $5 weekend night cover charge still has a few details to work out, says Memphis City Council chairman Berlin Boyd.
“We’re not putting a period there, we’re putting a comma because we are taking a pause,” Boyd said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”
“I’m writing out and laying out the way our Beale Street Bucks program will be temporarily,” he said, referring to the $10 cover charge on Saturday nights in the spring and summer after 10 p.m. that comes with $7 in coupons to use with Beale Street merchants.
Council member Jamita Swearengen moved to reduce the $10 charge to $5 with no coupons, or vouchers, and the council approved the move last week along with a direct accounting of the money to the council.
“We will take the $5. We will see it, have a report come back to us – the $2 will remain for security,” Boyd said. “After one week or two weeks we look at the balance. We are going to increase the number of security guards down there to make sure we have adequate security until September.”
That’s when a Beale Street task force is to report on what other cities are doing and possible alternatives to a cover charge of any kind. The task force includes a council member and representatives of the city administration, the Downtown Memphis Commission, hotel and motel owners, the Beale Street Merchants Association and a Beale merchant who is not a member of the association.
“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Council member Martavius Jones said the council is not trying to run the entertainment district, although the task force could lead to an examination of a management firm that was supposed to be a first goal of the Beale Street Tourism Development Authority. The council recently abolished the authority because it hadn’t hired a management firm.
“I don’t think we are looking at the management of it,” Jones said. “We are just looking at trying to increase the accountability because we still are talking about a public street, a historic street … We are not talking about the day-to-day management of it.”
Council member Edmund Ford Jr. said the issue of the cover charge is accounting for where the money goes. And the first detailed report on more than $400,000 the Beale Street Bucks cover charge generated last year shows all of it didn’t go for the cost of security.
“Out of the $180,000 that was mentioned in that spread sheet, $65,000 they are giving away to charity,” Ford said. “There is another percentage that is being done that doesn’t even correlate to public safety.”
Jones says some money went to a Beale Street app that he says has nothing to with safety. Another $200,000 from the used coupons are cashed-in by merchants who accept them toward their own bottom line.
Jones questions why police couldn’t just close the district when it reaches a certain capacity and avoid any kind of cover charge for any reason.
“The police director has the authority to say, at any given time, we have too many people on here,” he said. “Do we need the Beale Street Bucks in order to reduce the crowd? I would think not.”
Council members are still reviewing a legal opinion on Beale Street Bucks and its legality by council attorney Allan Wade. Wade talked about it as part of the council’s discussion of the move to cut the cover charge. But he declined to release a copy of the written opinion citing ongoing litigation – a federal court case that contends the bucks program is racially discriminatory.
Some council members still question whether it is legal to have any kind of cover charge on a public street.
“It’s debatable. It’s legal if the street is actually closed with a special use permit,” Boyd said. “The leaseholders only control the property in front of their buildings – the sidewalks. The street is controlled by the city of Memphis. … The council never gave the police director nor the merchants authority to close and charge for Beale Street.”
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Wade have said the Bucks program is legal. Wade said the council has to ratify the cover charge, however, and that the cover charge should be on scale with the cost of security – its stated purpose.
Strickland says the Bucks program works as a security measure, but will be much less effective with a lower cover charge.
The city’s previous effort at simply clearing the street at 3 a.m. on a given night – no matter how crowded it is – was challenged in federal court and the city is barred from ever doing that again. The city also announced that it had discontinued the policy, but police continued to enforce it for years until the arrest of an off-duty police officer on the street that led to the successful federal court challenge.