Huntington Mayor Steve Williams could not have been a happy man Wednesday morning. By noon Thursday, his frustration level must have been near its peak.
How in the world could city officials have missed so many red flags that would have alerted them to the possibility — no, the probability — that a large-scale shooting incident could occur downtown? And when will we know exactly what happened?
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Williams said he will ask the City Council to amend zoning ordinances to prevent any new bars from opening within the city.
His request followed an incident around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday — New Year’s Day — at the Kulture Hookah Bar at 1113 4th Ave. Seven people were wounded by gunfire. As of late last week, none of the wounds were expected to be fatal. The city has issued a cease-and-desist order to Kulture, which effectively shuts it down.
The fact the Kulture Hookah Club opened last year at all was a failure of the system at City Hall.
Sharon Pell, the city’s business service advocate, said at Thursday’s news conference that Kulture did not follow through with required steps to make it a legitimate business after it was granted a special permit from the Huntington Board of Zoning Appeals in July 2019.
Kulture LLC initially applied for a certificate of occupancy as a retail establishment that would sell vaping products. The owners then asked for a special permit to operate a bar, which was granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals on the condition the owners obtain required permits from the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration and the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.
Pell said Kulture LLC never received permits from the state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration or the health department.
Williams said the city had received more than 20 calls about the bar since it opened, but nothing indicated that the bar was operating illegitimately. Wednesday morning’s shooting was the first time city officials learned the bar did not have proper permits in place.
Williams said it was also the first time he learned that Charon Chere (Harris) Reese, one of the bar’s owners, had pleaded guilty in federal court in 2016 for her role in a Detroit-based heroin conspiracy to maintaining a residence for the purpose of distributing heroin.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that a lot of red flags were missed. Reese’s criminal record should have been enough to prevent Kulture from opening, and the fact her offense was linked to Detroit should have been the reddest flag of all.
Not only was there an inadequate background check on Hookah’s owners — assuming there was one at all — there was also no followup on promises that were made.
And 20 complaints in a six-month period? That sounds like a lot.
Williams’ proposal for a ban on new bars has merits, but it also has drawbacks. Since Pullman Square opened, much of the commercial and professional activity that had been on 4th Avenue has moved to 3rd Avenue, leaving many storefronts vacant. Bars are among the few tenants landlords on 4th Avenue can count on.
There is also the question of whether a ban on new bars is legal. If the City Council enacts Williams’ proposed ban, it can expect one or more lawsuits.
For now, Williams is taking steps to react to the New Year’s Day shootings, but there will need to be other actions taken. Among other things, background checks will need to be more thorough. Zoning ordinances for the downtown will need to be revised to place new limits on what businesses can operate there. And enforcement actions will need to be increased.
There is also a need for information and transparency. How did this happen? When can city residents and others expect answers to their questions of exactly what happened that night and what led up to it?
City residents and visitors expect this to be taken care of with all appropriate speed.