Huntington’s downtown is experiencing a renaissance as 3rd Avenue bustles with activity nightly and business investment has begun moving south to Fourth Avenue and beyond. Property values in the core have increased by $18,531,040 since 2004. While other cities’ downtown cores continue to fade, Huntington is becoming known as a regional center for entertainment. Just think about the quality dining and live-music venues that we now have that did not exist 10 years ago.
Now consider what occurred during the early morning of Jan. 1. The frightening prospect of a dispute resulting in the shooting of several people that occurred between the prosperous downtown area and Marshall University warrants our collective focus and resolution that no similar event can occur here again. Within hours, that scrutiny focused on a city board’s action to approve a special permit for a bar. How could the board have done such a thing with so many “red flags,” as The Herald-Dispatch asserts?
We can all agree that there is little that a local government regulatory body can do to stop a criminal who disregards precious human life to the extent that he is willing to open fire in a room indiscriminately. This is a form of criminal behavior that our nation struggles with daily. Compound this with a second bad actor, one who is apparently willing to lie her way into the operation of a business, and you have a formula for the disaster that has been visited upon us. So, did we miss red flags, or did we act with all necessary diligence?
I do concede that the editorial board was in possession of some inaccurate information that came from city sources. The reference to “20 calls about the bar” stated in the editorial proved to be a real eyebrow raiser. 911 records indicate that there were actually a total of six calls, while the number 20 related to the number of inspections. This regretfully may have led to a misunderstanding of the facts.
I also want to set the record straight that the property had only been permitted as a retail store to sell hookah paraphernalia. It was not permitted as an alcohol bar or a hookah bar. Hookah bars are not permitted within the county. The suggestion that the City or its Board of Zoning Appeals permitted any type of bar is false. The special permit granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals essentially meant that the particular property was appropriate for a bar if it met all of the other necessary alcohol service permits requirements. Kulture, LLC never applied for an alcohol license and would not have been granted one based on the applicant’s prior felony conviction.
It is also important to note that the owner was the subject of an investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies. This investigation remains ongoing. While law enforcement and the city’s regulatory agencies were continuously communicating prior to the incident, neither party had accumulated “actionable evidence” to move with criminal charges. To suggest that law enforcement has failed on this matter in any way is irresponsible.
Given the tone of the editorial, some discussion of what a municipality can and can’t do is important. Most readers will understand that Constitutional protections, privacy laws and anti-discrimination laws limit a city’s inquiry into a business applicant’s personal information. For example, a special permit cannot be arbitrarily denied simply because the applicant is from Detroit.
We do not disagree with the editorial board’s position that more should be done to understand who is going to sell alcohol within the city. We are currently evaluating the city’s processes with respect to these types of entities. First, we are looking at ways to legally beef up the application process. Second, Mayor Steve Williams has tasked city leaders to determine ways to control the over-development of bars within the downtown area. As the downtown continues to transition to both family-oriented activities as well as a more dense residential area, we are well served by carefully controlling the growth of alcohol-based entertainment.
The shooting that occurred on Jan. 1 was not the result of some institutional failure. Every person who had a hand in addressing the matter performed his or her job with competence. The shooting occurred because of unpredictable criminal behavior, the act of a man using a gun to inflict punishment on other people for whom he had no regard. Our job as the municipal government is to continue to refine our procedures to protect both the safety and rights of our citizens and visitors.