The allure of Santa Barbara’s entertainment district is not hard to identify. With plenty of clubs and an ample supply of booze, it’s a prime location for some innocent chatting as well as some hardcore partying. But a handful of downtown businesses and community members with a slightly different view of the district – a sober view – see a high crime rate, crowds of intoxicated revelers and a whole lot of noise.
To combat the district’s problems, which vary from obnoxious drunkards to all-out brawls, a group of local businesses and community members have prompted the city to consider placing restrictions on one of the area’s main attractions: dancing.
Since a club cannot legally allow dancing unless it has a permit, one proposal currently being floated would place a cap on the number of new dance permits issued within the three-square blocks of Ortega, Gutierrez, Chapala and Anacapa Streets, said Councilwoman Iya Falcone. The proposal would limit the number of downtown clubs that allow dancing to 14, and hopefully contain the lively party scene, said Falcone, who chairs the Santa Barbara City Council Ordinance Committee.
“It is just a very concentrated area of clubs, bars and restaurants. When you add alcohol into the equation, noise, vandalism and public drunkenness can occasionally be a problem,” Falcone said. “One idea put forth is to limit the number of dance permits [in the three block area] to 14, which is the number that exists now. This way, if an establishment moves or changes ownership, the number will stay at 14.”
Although the local Fire and Police Commission will not present its recommendations about the issue to the Santa Barbara City Council Ordinance Committee until May 22, Falcone said the city has been considering the matter for the past 18 months.
Throughout the long months of consideration, Falcone said maintaining an open dialogue with community members and local business owners has been a top priority for the city, but local club owners are still worried that the proposal might have a negative impact on downtown’s businesses and community as a whole.
Bob Stout, owner of the Wildcat Lounge and an active member of the Restaurant and Bar Association, has been vocal throughout the process. Stout said that he and other bar owners fear the proposed cap on dance permits could cause problems for businesses trying to succeed in the entertainment district in the future.
“If I want to sell my business, I want to be able to guarantee the prospective buyer that they will be able to get a dance permit, not get put at the bottom of a waiting list,” Stout said. “Once there’s talk about a moratorium [on dance permits], it puts a lot of pressure on to put down rules and regulations about who gets permits down the line.”
For local businesses actually vying for the proposed cap, the current situation in the entertainment district represents an ongoing problem. Tamara Erickson, general manager at the Hotel Santa Barbara on Main Street, said the problem does not lie with any individual club, but rather with the crowds and the noise that the particularly high concentration of clubs in the district generates.
“We have no problem with dancing itself, but crime in this area is three-and-a-half times higher than anywhere else in the community,” said Erickson. “We are a family-run establishment, not a big corporation. We want to be able to do our business the best we can, and this problem is keeping us from doing that.”
However, Stout and others are quick to point out that the entertainment district itself serves as a valuable asset in drawing visitors and revenue to the downtown area.
This has not always been the case, Stout said. In the early 1990s, the lower 500 block of State Street had difficulty luring businesses to the area, he said. To solve the problem, the city issued a large number of liquor licenses to entice bars, restaurants and the crowds and revenue that come with them, Stout said.
“They took chances, and now the area is successful and more people want to come to the lower blocks [of State Street]. It is now a vibrant part of the community, and there is some conflict that comes with that,” Stout said.