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VOL. 133 | NO. 104 | Thursday, May 24, 2018

Beale Street Bucks Comeback Recommended as Lawsuit Dismissed

By Bill Dries

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Almost a year after all cover charges to get in the Beale Street Entertainment District were dropped, the cover charge program known as Beale Street Bucks could be making a comeback.

The suggestion is sure to renew a vocal debate about whether charging a cover after 10 p.m. on Saturdays during the summer is an effective security measure or selective crowd control on the street that gave birth to the blues, where Saturday night crowds are a part of its history. 

The preliminary recommendation from the security consultant hired by the city’s Beale Street Task Force comes at the end of the spring peak the district sees during the monthlong Memphis in May International Festival and before the second peak that materializes after the Memorial Day holiday.

Bike Night on Beale Street is among the summer events in the entertainment district that draw a large crowd in the peak spring and summer period for the district.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Two illuminated arches have gone up to welcome the summer crowds. One is at Fourth and Beale on the eastern end of the district. The other is at Main and Beale, a block west of Second Street, where the western side of the district formally begins.

Meanwhile, the federal court lawsuit over the Beale Street Bucks program has been dismissed with all sides working on details of a settlement out of court.

The security consultant, Peter Ashwin of Boise, Idaho-based Event Risk Management Solutions, is recommending that the entertainment district institute some new version of the program, which the Memphis City Council abolished effective last June independent of the lawsuit.

Beale Street had experimented with various cover charge models for several years before it implemented the Beale Street Bucks program in 2016. In exchange for the $10 cover charged on Saturday nights during the spring and summer, patrons were given $8 in “Beale Street Bucks” – coupons that could be spent at merchants in the district.

Later, the cover charge was reduced to $5 and the coupons were eliminated.

“Many of the council members have expressed that we took a vote and the council did away with Beale Street Bucks,” said City Council chairman Berlin Boyd, who also is chairman of the task force that hired Ashwin’s firm. 

“He is and was recommending that we enact a Beale Street Bucks program,” Boyd said of Ashwin. “In his overall findings, he said that is something that can control the crowd and reduce the risk of stampedes.”

Ashwin is a former Australian Army Special Forces officer who has served as a consultant to six Olympic Games, the 2010 G8 Summit and many festivals, including the Memphis in May International Festival.

His firm is being paid up to $50,000 from the $257,779 in Saturday night cover charges collected on Beale Street before the council ended the practice.

Large crowds on Saturday nights after 10 p.m. during the Beale Street entertainment district’s summer peak prompted the formal move to the Beale Street Bucks program in 2016. The Memphis City Council first cut in half the $10 cover charge and then abolished the cover charge completely.  (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

Council members questioned where the money went in a district owned by the city. That included questions about the revenue being used by merchants for security measures – a financial responsibility that is supposed to be the merchants’ under terms of their leases.

The council and the task force also found that the use of the coupons or $8 rebate came with rules that varied among businesses, with some prohibiting customers from using the coupons to pay a second cover charge to get into individual clubs or not allowing the coupons to be used for alcoholic beverages. 

The task force also found instances where individual businesses offered to let those waiting in line at the cover charge checkpoints duck the line and enter their businesses through a back entrance for a single cover charge.

Even though the cover charge has been eliminated, the district still has security checkpoints where visitors may be checked for guns and other weapons.

The lawsuit, filed originally as a pro se lawsuit in August 2016 by Lucille Catron, director of the Beale Street Development Corp., alleged the cover charge on Saturday nights during the street’s spring and summer peak season was racially motivated and unconstitutional. She and other plaintiffs sued the city; the Downtown Memphis Commission, which manages the day-to-day affairs of the district for the city of Memphis; and the Beale Street Merchants Association.

The city was dropped as a defendant earlier this year.

The legal matter was set to go to trial Monday, May 21, but U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes signed a dismissal order the Friday before the trial date when the case against the DMC was dismissed. All sides agreed to have it dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning it cannot be refiled or brought back up again.

“I think any time you can compromise – either in politics or a legal matter – is a good thing,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said. “I think that’s a good step forward.”

Strickland says the Beale Street Bucks program helped to make the district safer – a contention the merchants association has also pushed on the task force.

“I’ve long said we need Beale Street Bucks there. Beale Street Bucks has maintained the safety on the street,” Strickland said Wednesday. “When Beale Street Bucks has not been in operation, you’ve had surges and some people have gotten hurt in a stampede. It’s interesting this outside consultant looked at all possibilities and is coming back with, ‘Well, Beale Street Bucks is the way to go.’”

But Boyd said Ashwin’s findings thus far indicate the problems are not unique to Saturday nights after 10 p.m.

“None of the stampedes are tied to a certain night or how large or how small the crowd is,” Boyd said of Ashwin’s findings. “He’s coming back to look at larger crowds and what typically occurs. There are no real hot spots that determine what creates stampedes. We’re definitely going to continue with the crowd study to make sure that we can find amenable solutions to end the debate of what’s best for Beale Street and how we handle Beale Street security.”

And Ashwin’s specific recommendation on the cover charge is certain to prompt debate on a council that voted to abolish any kind of cover charge.

“Once we get the recommendation, I’m sure there will be robust discussion and a big debate,” Boyd said of what is part of a larger discussion the task force is having and hopes to make recommendations on.

“It’s pretty much trying to figure it out, from security hot spots to crowd-control areas to how to re-engage the police that are down there,” he said. “There are several ways to reduce the crowd lines that basically happen at one end of the street. … We’re just trying to create a flow or an environment that will be receptive and conducive for everyone visiting Beale Street.”

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