VIDEO: West Avenue sees nightlife changes

Crowds, increased crime put spotlight on downtown Fayetteville street

Posted: January 21, 2018 at 1 a.m.

A group of residents waits outside the entrance to Teatro Scarpino across from Z330 Bar and Patio on West Avenue north of Dickson Street in Fayetteville. The short stretch of West Avenue has become a spot ripe for personal conflicts, increased crime and police patrols.

FAYETTEVILLE — A short stretch of West Avenue has become a spot ripe for personal conflicts, increased crime and police patrols as throngs of young people pour onto the street when bars close at 2 a.m.

Arkansas Private Club License

A state law passed in April altered how private clubs are vetted in Arkansas. Act 1112 makes it so private clubs have to get permission from the local government to operate. The applicant still has to get a liquor license from the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control. The act’s sponsor, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, has said the intention was to give local authorities more say in what comes into their community.

Source: Staff report

“For whatever reason, the rhythm of the street has changed over the years,” said Cody Yancey, who has observed the area for the past nine years from his hot dog stand. “Over the past year or two, it seems like everybody has to finish the night down there.”

Several factors have contributed to the flood of people. First, there’s simply more students at the University of Arkansas and more residents in the city, which translates to more people out on Dickson Street, police said. The Dickson Street Entertainment District runs west from North Block Avenue to Arkansas Avenue and along North West Avenue from West Lafayette Street to West Spring Street.

Restaurant and bar workers attributed growing popularity along West Avenue to 1,200 residents in two nearby apartment complexes that opened in the past two years, the popular summer DJ lineup at Teatro Scarpino’s and longtime bars that draw late-night customers. The two-block area pinpointed is from Dickson to Lafayette streets.

The recent killing of Trenton Coney put a spotlight on the area, which already had an uptick in policing, lighting and security measures over the past year. Coney was shot early New Year’s Day in the parking lot on the west side of West Avenue in front of Arsaga’s at the Depot, next to Scarpino’s.

Police Chief Greg Tabor said the New Year’s killing was a senseless shooting that could have happened anywhere. Those involved spent the holiday at a nearby private party in a rented Airbnb location.

“It happened in the Dickson Street area, but it doesn’t relate to all these other issues,” Tabor said.

The number of crimes has steadily increased along the small section of West Avenue for the past five years, according to Police Department incident data. In 2017, police recorded 332 incidents — nearly double the number in 2013.

Since 2013, more than half of the 1,324 incidents reported from the area were labeled disturbances, which police define as verbal or physical altercations between two or more people. Theft and assault are the second and third most incidents, together totaling 348, or 26 percent of the documented incidents since 2013, according to police records.

More than 75 percent of incidents happened Friday, Saturday or Sunday and 63 percent between midnight and 3 a.m. September tends to be the busiest month.

With five clubs situated near the intersection of West and Watson streets, crowding is one of the main factors police, workers and bar-goers said.

About 2 a.m. June 25, shortly after last call, a video shows hundreds of people on West Avenue. Young men are sitting and walking on a car as bystanders watch and take video with their phones.

Tabor said, “We were having so much trouble around 2 a.m. there at West and Watson. The crowd would pour onto the street and a car wouldn’t be able to get through. We were afraid an emergency vehicle wouldn’t be able to get up the street.”

The issue isn’t just the overcrowding, Tabor said.

“It’s a culmination of a lot of different things. It’s the alcohol, it’s the overcrowding, in some cases it’s the clientele and many, many other things,” he said. “I don’t think you could attribute it to any one given thing.”

According to bar staff and customers, the congestion noticeably increased last summer. However, the summer didn’t have a spike in reported incidents compared to past summers. The numbers fit the gradual growth of incidents.

Police have met with representatives from the late-night bars Lit Lounge and Z330 Bar in response to the “perceived increase in crowd size and disturbances in the area,” said Sgt. William McKinney.

The businesses added lighting along the north exterior wall at police request.

The shooting of former Razorback football player Sebastian Tretola on July 23 in Parking Lot 53 by the Lit Lounge sparked further lighting additions and increased police patrols.

Police began using a surveillance trailer, equipped with lights and four cameras on weekends, in addition to foot and vehicle patrol.

The owners of Scarpino’s and Lit Lounge didn’t respond to calls, social media messages, and email to multiple addresses since Dec. 12. The owner of Z330 Bar declined to comment on the record. Many of the bartenders, bouncers and other employees in the area also didn’t wish to go on record.

Greenroom bar manager Tonya Cline said she’s glad more lights have gone up. She still tries to park close and wait until the crowds settle to leave work after several people pounded on her car and threatened her earlier in the fall, she said.

If she has to park in Lot 53 or farther, she always has a male worker or police officer walk her to her car.

“Not every night is a crowd, but you don’t know when it’s going to be,” Cline said. “It was probably at the beginning of the summer that I started realizing, ‘hey, there’s an issue out there.’ Maybe I shouldn’t park my car on the street anymore or walk outside after a certain time by myself.”

SAFETY MEASURES

The Fire Marshal’s Office amped up fire code checks at the bars and restaurants in the entertainment district during the fall, especially around West Avenue, Deputy Fire Marshal Brian Sloat said.

“The Police Department said they were having serious problems on Dickson Street and asked us to continue what we were doing,” he said.

Sloat said they usually do one or two checks in early August because crowds increase with the influx of students. It’s mainly to educate workers how to keep track of guests and to prepare for the annual Bikes, Blues & BBQ Motorcycle Rally crowds, he said.

This September, the Fire Marshal’s Office issued a citation for a blocked fire exit at Scarpino’s. It was a coordinated effort by his office, police and Alcoholic Beverage Control, Sloat said. In his five years on the job, Sloat said he doesn’t remember any other fire code violation citation being issued to an owner or manager in the area.

Sloat said managers and door personnel overall do a great job to monitoring occupancy and follow other parts of the fire code. It’s there for everyone’s safety, and it can be advantageous to the business because people can get into the bar and fights are less likely to break out, he said.

“It is really, really interesting. It seems like it’s really like waves of students and other people coming to Dickson Street around midnight,” Sloat said. “They do tend to congregate back there, and if they can’t get in the bars it can create crowding outside.”

McKinney said Uber drivers also contribute to the congestion. Tabor said police no longer allow drivers to wait for passengers in the area, specifically on West Watson Street behind the Greenroom where they had been congregating.

College senior Hope Walker is a bartender on Dickson Street and lives near West Avenue. She said it makes sense more incidents happen in that particular area, because that’s where most young Dickson goers end up.

“Everyone wants to see their friends when they are out, and it’s become the norm to go there (West Avenue) so its expected that you’ll see everyone,” she said. “I feel like the reasons the incidents have happened in that area is because that’s where everyone is then. People are also most intoxicated toward the end of the night.”

Greenroom owner Rustin Fuller said it’s the bar owners’ and bartenders’ job not to over-serve customers.

“It seems like there’s been more instances of people getting silly drunk. I’m real adamant about cutting people off or, if they come in stumbling, not serving them,” Fuller said. “And the look on people’s faces who have never been cut off, ever evidently, because it seems like a new concept to them. But that’s part of our responsibility.”

The 326 N. West Ave. building is home to multiple businesses. The three bars, including the Dickson Street Social Club that closed in September, share a bathroom and hallway area.

This shared area has been a spot for drug use, said ABC enforcement agent Howard Robinson.

LEGAL STEPS

Alcoholic Beverage Control Enforcement division agents also have had an active presence in the area to check underage drinkers, as well as illegal substances and weapons, aren’t making it through bar doors, Robinson said.

Robinson said drugs have obviously always been around, but there seems to be more drug use in the West Avenue area than in the past. Cocaine, specifically, “has reared its ugly head,” he said.

Robinson said he thinks the active presence of ABC agents can be a good deterrent, but he issues citations when he has to.

Last year, the ABC cited 13 violations — some of which include allowing drugs on the premises — at four bars in the one block along West Avenue. The division cited 27 violations total to 15 alcohol-serving businesses in the entire Dickson Street district.

“We need business owners’ cooperation,” Howard said. “We always welcome their input.”

Some bars have posted dress codes and started rigorous door checks. Z330 Bar started patting down men at the door, checking purses and using a metal detector wand after the summer shooting in Lot 53 next door.

The City Council used its new authority from the state to approve a private club license for the first time in November. It is for the VIP Club that plans to open in part of the Social Club’s space. The council approved it with the condition the club close at 1:30 a.m., 30 minutes before most Dickson Street bars.

Council member Mark Kinion said, “That’s a pretty ideal situation, when the bar owners work with us.”

Police will train workers at the new bar to spot fake IDs and stop underage drinking. Many of the other bars and restaurants in the entertainment district have done this training with employees, according to police.

The increased police presence and colder weather has led to quieter months overall in that area, Tabor said.

McKinney said, “This tactic does seem to have helped, for now.”

After the New Year’s shooting, police talked with the owner of the private parking lot where it happened about adding more light and cutting back tree branches.

Police also met with the Dickson Street Merchant’s Association on Jan. 8 to discuss what else they could do to address the situation, Tabor said. Members of the association who attended the meeting could not be reached last week for comment.

Time will tell if everything being done is enough to curtail crowding and criminal activity.

“Some incidences are just going to happen, but I think it has to be a group effort between the business owners, patrons, police, everybody, because you can’t arrest your way out of a problem,” Tabor said. “It’s going to take everyone working on it.”

Ashton Eley can be reached by email at aeley@nwadg.com or Twitter @NWAAshton.