Note: This story was updated on Dec. 19 to add comments from Blue Light owner Brian Joyce.
NASHVILLE — Citing violence and other problems in Chattanooga's Station Street entertainment district, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, says he has introduced a bill to repeal a 2016 law that allowed patrons of bars and nightclubs to bring alcoholic drinks onto the street.
"We can't get the city or the proprietors of those businesses to protect the citizens and establishments down there," Gardenhire said in a Friday phone interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "So the easiest way is to get rid of the law we did granting them the ability to do it and see if that doesn't help."
The law, sponsored by Gardenhire and then-Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, took effect five years ago. It came at the request of proponents who wanted to allow patrons of bars, restaurants and clubs to carry their drinks into the street where there would be accompanying live entertainment.
It was an effort to establish on the street, which stretches beside the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a mini-version of Memphis's famous Beale Street where public consumption of alcohol is allowed.
Station Street has since become a premier entertainment spot for adults and is known for the numerous restaurants and bars nearby. According to the law, patrons could have alcohol in open containers as long as the cups were plastic and contained the Station Street logo.
Several of the businesses are housed in the Choo Choo complex. There were two street shooting incidents recently. Following one shooting in June in which two women were injured, witnesses told the Times Free Press that at least one of the women injured had been involved in an argument at the Blue Light nightclub shortly before being shot in a parking lot at 1400 Rossville Ave., several hundred feet away, near Station Street.
Blue Light owner Brian Joyce has said repeatedly that his club, which opened in August 2021, is being singled out for things that happen at other establishments around Chattanooga and that the Blue Light is a safe place to dance and have a drink.
The June 19 shooting followed an earlier shooting that left three people dead and 14 injured on McCallie Avenue. Chattanooga police have said a large fight on Station Street was part of the timeline that led up to the McCallie Avenue shooting.
In November 2021, the Chattanooga Beer and Wrecker Board found the Blue Light in violation of six separate code violations that reportedly took place between September and Oct. 31 of the same year. The violations include a staff member being intoxicated while on duty, selling alcohol off premises, operating a disorderly place and failing to report a disorder to police.
At the time, the board voted to repeal the bar's beer license, which the Blue Light appealed, sending the case to Chancery Court where it was heard by Judge Jeffrey Atherton in June 2022. The club later agreed in October to hire paid licensed security for the bar. It also agreed to a probation period of one year during which there could be no additional incidents of disorder or sustained violations related to alcohol. The Times Free Press reported earlier this week that a Beer Board official said there had yet to be a meeting to work out a security agreement with Joyce.
Joyce has maintained that the Blue Light was exonerated by the court agreement and that it has had no violations inside the club.
“Statistically speaking, Station Street accounts for nearly 0% of crime in Chattanooga, so to describe it as ‘crime-infested’ is laughable," Joyce said. “As for the ordinance itself, I wouldn’t be opposed to repealing it. Nobody in Chattanooga from the Beer Board to business owners seems to have a plan for it, we never host major outdoor events on the street like the Beale Street festival in Memphis or St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah, so what’s the point of having it?”
Events have been held on the street, including Station Street Live, a concert series. Such events feature a stage, live music and street closures.
The venue also hosted the Station Street Halloween Party pre-pandemic.
"The open containers on Station Street has nothing to do with problems we are experiencing," said Michael Alfano, owner of the Comedy Catch on Station Street. "It is the lack of enforcement of the beer board rules on establishments that do not adhere to the rules and laws. We have had open container for five years and problems for only the past year.
"Mr. Gardenhire should come down to Station Street and talk to the businesses," Alfano said.
Adam Kinsey, President of Choo Choo Partners LP, was involved in helping get the law and ordinance passed in 2016 and said he believes repealing the open container law would be a step backwards.
"For the last five years there have been no issues, and it appears to me any issues (on Station Street) are not related to the open container law, but with one specific business," said Kinsey, who did not identify the business.
He said open container laws are used in other parts of the state and country and can be used as economic tool. Kinsey said he believes Chattanooga is looking at introducing it to other parts of the city as a way to increase business.
"I'm just going to try to repeal the law that we did that allowed the areas to become a crime-infested area," Gardenhire said. "And if that doesn't work, then the burden is on the Chattanooga Police Department and the beer board to fix the problem. It seems that the problem started after this law went into effect and people saw what they could get away with."
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