Downtown entertainment hours will not be extended despite pleas from restaurant owners who have been served notices of violations, but council members, including the mayor, believe it’s only a matter of time before they get what they want.
The owners of two restaurants, Renneé’s Restaurant and Lounge at 156 W. Washington St. and High Tide Restaurant & Raw Bar at 130 N. Commerce St. received infringement notices on March 4 for allowing live performances without conditional use permission. Both would like to see downtown entertainment hours extended until at least 2 am.
Mayor wants more live performance hours eventually
Mayor Mike Duman said the city is not yet ready for this. He cited the need for proper enforcement of the code, better lighting, more cameras, and more police presence downtown.
“I’m all for downtown, for a vibrant downtown,” Duman said during a June 15 public hearing on two requests for permits. “I want to practice at 2 am, trust me. I imagine, after all, at 2:00 in the morning, when they close both ends of Washington Street, just let there be little Bourbon Street, whatever you want to call it, close it at Washington Street, close it at Saratoga. (The outside). But most importantly, we must do it at the right time. We must be ready.”
He said it was premature to extend the hours, especially if serious incidents happen in the city center without proper mechanisms to resolve them.
“The worst thing we can do is rush to extend those hours and then some unfortunate incidents will happen,” Duman said. “And then what will happen is that there will be an opinion that it is not safe to go to the center of Suffolk, which is the last thing we want. So I think we are all working towards a common goal. … I think this is a step in the right direction.”
The owners of Renneé have requested permission to hold live performances until 2 am on weekdays and 24 hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays.
Why Restaurants Need Conditional Use Permission
The owners of High Tide, open from 11:00 am to 2:00 am daily, have requested a conditional use permit allowing indoor live entertainment from 11:00 am to 11:00 pm Sunday through Thursday and from 11:00 am to midnight Friday and Saturday . He also requested hours of outdoor entertainment from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with acoustic music playing on the patio. The Planning Commission has changed High Tide outdoor entertainment hours from Friday to Sunday only from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and this will allow live entertainment to start at 9:00 am.
In a 7-1 vote, when Donald Goldberg voted no, he approved High Tide’s permit request, but changed outdoor entertainment hours to run from noon to 6:00 pm. the division was also 7-1, with Goldberg in opposition.
Duman said there needs to be more clarity on the definition of live entertainment and rethinking the classification parameters of businesses if they really want to offer it. He said that each conditional use permit should stand on its own dignity, but that every restaurant owner seeking one should be treated fairly.
High Tide co-owner Karen Tew said the business had been open since August 2020 and unknowingly allowed live entertainment, including DJs and acoustic artists.
“We understand that this is currently the standard in Suffolk,” Tew said, “and this is what we are asking for. However, I also ask that (this)… could be extended at another point in time.”
The City’s Uniform Development Order requires businesses to obtain conditional approval to open a bar and nightclub in the CBD. The city defines a bar and nightclub as a restaurant or similar establishment that has a dance floor or entertainment program.
Restaurants and bars can stay open until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 2am Friday and Saturday by law, but if they offer live entertainment, it must end at 11pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends, with noise is basic. A factor in this, according to director of planning and community development Kevin Wine.
Race and Justice in Law Enforcement
Rennie Townsend, who owns Renneé’s with her husband Geoffrey Townsend, said their business was attacked because it is a black-owned business. When their business received a notice of violation about a month after opening, she decided to report other businesses she knew also violated the ordinance.
She said they run Renneé’s as a restaurant that serves alcohol and not a nightclub, which is an important difference, she says, because her ABC license says 55% of sales are food and the other 45% is alcohol. She said that he only had a DJ who entertained the guests.
“I did everything that was not yet accepted in restaurants in the city center,” said Rennie Townsend. “All the restaurants (were) doing live performances downtown. But when the city quoted me, I got lost in the action because I didn’t know why. Seems like the only reason I was quoted was because I was black and a woman.”
Wine said classifying a live entertainment establishment as a nightclub is “the most comfortable home we have for anyone who wants to have live entertainment in their restaurant.”
She said she patronized all the other downtown restaurants before she decided to open one, and said she was told by the planning department that the others weren’t breaking the rules because they weren’t reported, so she decided to report all of them.
Council member Shelly Butler-Barlow said it should be more clear to businesses that they must have a conditional use permit in order to offer live entertainment.
“We need some kind of fairness in how we apply this,” Butler-Barlow said. “If we only deal with complaints, it may not be the best system. … As for Ms. Townsend, I don’t know that she’s particularly singled out, but I do think we’re not applying this evenly throughout downtown.”
Vine said his office cited Rennes when they received the infringement report. He quoted others after they were brought to the attention of his office.
“Now the city has 10 cups because of me,” said Rennie Townsend.
Councilman Tim Johnson said he never knew the council was doing anything other than the right thing for everyone in the city. He said Wine was just doing his job of enforcing the conditional license requirement for restaurants to host live entertainment.
“We have no prejudice against any people,” Johnson said. “We’re biased against Suffolk because we want Suffolk to be successful and we want the people who live here to be successful.”
Fears – loss of business and security
Rennie and Geoffrey Townsend, who also spoke at a public hearing in support of High Tide’s request, said they were losing out to similar businesses elsewhere in Hampton Roads. Rennie Townsend said it has a trickle down effect because if they can’t offer live entertainment at certain times, their business, employees, and distributors aren’t making money. She said the city has a choice if it wants downtown to thrive.
One resident, Brian Saunders, said he wished the High Tide entertainment hours on Sundays started at 1:00 pm rather than 11:00 am. Saunders, who until recently lived across the street from Rennes, said he moved because of crime and a lack of police force. presence, and there’s a noise issue after the restaurant closes, which he admitted the owners can’t control. He also said that the issue of receiving a notice of infringement is not a matter of race.
Betsy Brothers, who opposed the Townsends’ request for a permit, said she feared losing business elsewhere but wanted to see security improvements such as more lighting, cameras and police.
Responding to Goldberg’s noise concerns, Wine said businesses still must follow the city’s noise ordinance, which is enforced by Suffolk police.
Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said he wants all downtown businesses to operate on an equal footing.
“Whatever we do here, I want to make sure we do the same for others,” Bennett said after a public hearing on High Tide’s permission request.
Johnson agreed with Douman on the inevitability of extending weekend entertainment hours until 2am, but he’s not ready for that.
“I think this is the right decision for our growing city right now,” Johnson said.