City’s new nightlife division wants to make it safer to party in Atlanta

Guests enjoy drinks and music at Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Guests enjoy drinks and music at Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Atlanta doesn’t have a Bourbon Street. It doesn’t have a Broadway, like Nashville. It certainly doesn’t have a Vegas Strip.

Instead of boasting just one primary nightlife district, this city has more than a dozen.

From its gritty, graffiti-laden dive bars to its world-famous strip clubs and glitzy lounges, Atlanta’s diverse nightlife scene has helped put the city on the international stage. But it also presents a unique set of challenges for city and police department officials trying to better supervise an industry that has recently been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Atlanta police say they are responding to a troubling number of shootings, multitudes of them deadly, at bars and clubs. Many stem from arguments between patrons or staff, fueled by a proliferation of guns and a lack of conflict resolution, officials say. Meanwhile, residents have complained that it takes the city too long to crack down on businesses that have broken city laws multiple times and been the site of violent crime.

It’s a complicated issue that City Hall hopes to tackle.

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April 30, 2022 Atlanta - A security checks IDs of guests outside Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

April 30, 2022 Atlanta - A security checks IDs of guests outside Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
April 30, 2022 Atlanta - A security checks IDs of guests outside Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Mayor Andre Dickens last month announced the creation of a new “nightlife division” within his office to focus on the issue and better communicate with the city’s bars and clubs. He’s also backed proposed changes to the local law that could speed up the closure of problematic entertainment venues that have a history of crime.

“There are good operators out there. But the bad operators, I want their ears perked up,” Dickens recently told reporters.

Residents and businesses told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they see the new division as an encouraging first step. But it remains to be seen whether the new efforts will be a creative way to curb a rise in violent crime, or just another layer of municipal bureaucracy.

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Russell Donovan pours a drink at Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Avenue on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Russell Donovan pours a drink at Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Avenue on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Russell Donovan pours a drink at Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Avenue on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Rather than take a strictly punitive approach, the new nightlife division aims to work with bars and clubs to help give them what they need to keep customers safe and comply with the city’s laws — whether that’s crafting a security plan, making sure the right permits are on file or being trained on how to prevent arguments from escalating.

Dickens described it as a “proactive and preventative approach.”

“I’m just happy to see the city do anything ... to acknowledge that nightlife businesses need assistance,” said Johnny Martinez, one of the owners of Joystick Gamebar and Georgia Beer Garden on Edgewood Avenue. “As to how effective it will be? I guess only time will really tell.”

Dickens hired the city’s first nightlife manager, Michael Paul, to run to the new division, which operates under the Office of Film and Entertainment at City Hall. Paul is a veteran of the nightlife industry — he helped run one of the largest nightclubs on the East Coast in Washington, D.C. before he moved to Atlanta. He had a cigar lounge in Castleberry Hill for over 20 years, and during his time in Atlanta, has gotten to know many of the major players in Atlanta’s entertainment scene.

“I’m of the people,” he said. “So they trust the process.”

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April 30, 2022 Atlanta - Guests enjoy drinks and music at Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

April 30, 2022 Atlanta - Guests enjoy drinks and music at Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
April 30, 2022 Atlanta - Guests enjoy drinks and music at Whisky Mistress in Buckhead on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Paul helped convince owners and managers from dozens of local bars and clubs to show up voluntarily at City Hall on a recent Saturday morning, mere hours after last call. They were there for the city’s first “training day,” which was billed as a way for the city’s nightlife businesses to learn best practices on security, safety and permitting, and communicate their needs to city officials.

Among the businesses represented was the Blue Flame, one of the city’s premier strip clubs. It’s seen several shootings in the past two years, often stemming from arguments that spill out into its parking lot.

Security manager Trevor Young said the club hires off-duty APD officers and ex-military officials to assist with security. He welcomed the new line of communication with the city, saying additional police presence in the area around Blue Flame would help.

“I don’t believe that the businesses can run effectively without the support of the city,” Young said. “We’d love to see the officers there. As a matter of fact, we’d feed them every night. On me.”

Atlanta police Deputy Chief Timothy Peek told attendees at the training event that APD responded to over 660 incidents at nightlife businesses in 2021. So far this year, that number sits at just under 200.

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A man was shot at Allure Gentleman's Club strip club Thursday morning, March 31, 2022, according to Atlanta Police Department. APD responded to more than 660 incidents at nightlife businesses in 2021. So far this year, that number sits at just under 200. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A man was shot at Allure Gentleman's Club strip club Thursday morning, March 31, 2022, according to Atlanta Police Department. APD responded to more than 660 incidents at nightlife businesses in 2021. So far this year, that number sits at just under 200. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
A man was shot at Allure Gentleman's Club strip club Thursday morning, March 31, 2022, according to Atlanta Police Department. APD responded to more than 660 incidents at nightlife businesses in 2021. So far this year, that number sits at just under 200. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

There’s also a push for the city to stop bad actors more quickly.

In the case of Encore Hookah Bar & Bistro, for example, police responded to over 170 incidents “concerning violent criminal activity,” since February 2020, including at least two fatal shootings. The city filed a nuisance complaint to shutter the business this March, and Encore closed its doors in late April.

“It’s too lengthy of a process when murder has occurred,” Dickens told the AJC last month.

Legislation was introduced in the City Council this week to allow judges to order closure of a business for up to a year if it is deemed a “nuisance” by the municipal court. The measure is expected to have widespread support among the council.

ExploreAtlanta is accelerating its crackdown of nightclubs that cause a ‘nuisance’

Some community concerns stem from the process that allows the city to revoke businesses’ alcohol licenses if they violate laws.

Hollis Wise, an Old Fourth Ward resident and the vice president of Fourth Ward Neighbors, said residents have been anxiously waiting for the city to do more to crack down on Jack’s Pizza and Wings, a local haunt on North Highland Avenue. Jack’s was the site of shootings in May and December of 2021, and police allege the bar served alcohol later than allowed in December.

The city’s License Review Board voted in early March to revoke the alcohol license at Jack’s for six months and levy a $2,500 fine, records show. But that’s only a recommendation, and it hasn’t gone into effect, neighbors say.

License suspensions can be delayed for months because businesses can appeal in court. A representative for Jack’s didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

“People are just exhausted and tired.” Wise said. She is hopeful the new nightlife division can make a difference, but “my concern is that it just creates another layer.”

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April 30, 2022 Atlanta - Guests play table football game at Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Ave in Atlanta on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

April 30, 2022 Atlanta - Guests play table football game at Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Ave in Atlanta on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
April 30, 2022 Atlanta - Guests play table football game at Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Ave in Atlanta on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC