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Closed for Business?

Old Town Bars Ready to Ditch Entertainment District

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OLD TOWN'S "entertainment district" looks like a go—at least from the city's perspective.

Mayor Charlie Hales extended the effort last month, ensuring a collection of streets in the bar-intensive district will close on weekend nights through May. And last weekend Hales made his second trek out to the area, saying beforehand there's a "really good chance for a broad agreement" about how it can proceed.

Police—who pushed for the closures in the first place—claim they've lessened chaos in the area, and the project has led to a decrease in booze-fueled crime ["Safety Dance," News, April 3, 2013].

But the bars that provide the district's eponymous "entertainment," armed with four months of hard sales data and anecdotes, have become increasingly wary. And as the mayor floats an idea that would tax properties in the area to pay for the expensive program indefinitely, some are pulling their support.

"If the city wants to do it, let the city pay for it," says Jeff Plew, a vice president of Concept Entertainment Group, which owns Dixie Tavern. "That's my personal opinion. I haven't asked my partners."

That sentiment is cropping up all over the district, which stretches along NW 3rd from Everett to Burnside, tying in adjacent streets. For the past four months, the city has closed those roads to car and bike traffic from 10 pm to 3 am on Fridays and Saturdays, towing hundreds of cars left parked within the barricades.

The effort, so far, may have decreased crime. But it's also resulted in eerily empty streets—hardly the street-party atmosphere officials envisioned.

"It definitely has hurt our sales after 10 pm," says Adam Milne, owner of Old Town Pizza. "My biggest fear is that the only way to make ends meet after 10 pm is to either close down or change our business concept to be more bar-focused."

But bars are feeling the pinch, too.

"Up until the last few weeks, we have remained neutral if not positive on the concept," Mike Reed, the Boiler Room's general manager, wrote in a letter to the city this week. "However, in light of recent activities, conversations, and, most importantly, our sales, we can no longer support the continuance of the street closure."

According to the letter, the Boiler Room has seen a sharp reduction in weekend sales over the course of the closures, compared to the last two years. Meanwhile, sales during the rest of the week are flat.

"This area is now isolated and quarantined off from the rest of the city's vibrant nightlife," Reed wrote. "We can make the barriers as pretty as we want, but in everyone's mind, this area is different from the rest."

It's an expensive quarantine. Through March, the street closures cost nearly $10,000 a month, an expense for which Hales is seeking new revenue. He's suggested extending parking meter hours in the area and, after last week's State of the City address, the mayor floated the idea of establishing an "enhanced services district" in Old Town. Such demarcations—think downtown's Clean and Safe district—assess a tax on property managers to help pay for some agreed-upon improvements.

"If we're talking about improving services in an area, it's not crazy to talk about getting those people to pay," Hales said.

But these districts aren't enacted by city decree. They require a buy-in from the properties they're supposedly helping, and right now it's not remotely clear Old Town's business and residential properties are inclined to bring out their wallets.

"I know the owners have specifically said if they do try to implement that, they would be against it, "Said Nemo Haycock, director of events at CC Slaughters. "They, along with a lot of other businesses, would have some opposition."

"It would be a double punch for us," says Milne. "We're already losing money."

Full disclosure: Author Dirk VanderHart is a part-time KJ at the Boiler Room.

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