A tough new safety ordinance highlights the identity crisis pitting Scottsdale’s cowboy past against its party-mecca present.
It’s a little after midnight on a September weekend in Old Town Scottsdale’s entertainment district, and the clubs are heating up. Hordes of partiers in various states of undress swarm from bar to bar like masses of herded cattle – if cattle were a little shaky on their feet after a few too many Fireball shots, and if they were lured by the throbbing beats of hip-hop mash-ups in lieu of cowboy calls.
Just six hours earlier, the scene was less Jersey Shore and more Norman Rockwell – families having dinner, retirees leisurely window-shopping, couples sweetly walking hand-in-hand. No twerking or grinding in sight.
Too often over the past year, the high-energy revelry in Scottsdale has taken a violent, sobering turn. On January 27, bouncer and former Arizona State University football player Tyrice Thompson, 27, was stabbed five times during an altercation outside Martini Ranch and later died as a result of his wounds. Five months after that, a 34-year-old man was stabbed outside the same nightclub. He suffered life-threatening injuries, but survived. Elsewhere in Old Town Scottsdale, there have been exposure arrests, drive-by gunfire and innumerable fights – including some high profile ones: The same weekend as the Thompson incident, actor Jason London was arrested after allegedly punching a bouncer at Martini Ranch and, according to police reports, proceeded to defecate in the police car.
On September 10, the Scottsdale City Council approved an ordinance aimed at tightening security in bars, nightclubs and other high-volume venues in the city to improve public safety. Per the ordinance, such establishments must prepare and submit a public safety plan every two years. They must now staff one security person – who must attend a free training session with the Scottsdale Police Department and Fire Department – for every 50 patrons. If two or more public safety incidents occur within a one-week period or three occur within a month, the business must hire two off-duty police officers to supplement their security team during peak hours for a minimum of three months, or until three consecutive months have gone by without three or more public safety incidents.
The ordinance is plainly a gambit by the city to maintain its idyllic reputation – after all, Scottsdale was named the sixth-safest American city with a population exceeding 200,000 by a 2012 Business Insider report, as any city official will gladly tell you once or thrice. The disconnect, then, between the decadent party atmosphere and Scottsdale’s reputation as a safe, upscale resort community is leading to a bit of an identity crisis for the city. Is it still the cowboy-centric, aw-shucks-ma’am, “West’s Most Western Town” – its slogan since the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce adopted it in 1947? Or has it become, as the New York Times described it, “a desert version of Miami’s South Beach,” a glitzy, often chaotic nightlife mecca?
It’s more than an academic abstraction – jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Tourism is Scottsdale’s key industry and largest employer, employing 39 percent of the city’s workers, according to a report on City-Data.com. Bars alone in the entertainment district accounted for about $400,000 in direct tax revenue in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, according to city figures. In 2010, an estimated 7.6 million people visited Scottsdale, 6.4 million of whom were classified as “day visitors,” according to city data – a term that also applies to people who pop in for a night of bar-hopping.
Despite the numbers, some Scottsdale residents and business owners are determined to steer the town back to its roots. But is the ordinance fair or practicable for bar and nightclub owners, and does it threaten to undermine Old Town’s booming entertainment economy?
Although recent incidents put the ordinance on the fast track, Mayor W.J. “Jim” Lane says it has been in the works for nine years. The Martini Ranch incidents galvanized what had been proactive efforts by the city to prevent such things from occurring.
“I want to emphasize the fact that Scottsdale is the sixth-safest city in the country by designation in its group, so when something happens, it certainly does set some things in motion – something as severe as a security officer being stabbed, and fatally,” Lane says, commenting on the Thompson stabbing. “In the course of the time before that, we were wrestling with an approach of how to enforce security plans that were designed, conditional-use permits that were part of a process in the use of land as it’s currently zoned.”
Lane says the ordinance is the product of collaboration between city officials, business owners, residents and the fire and police departments. It’s been an uphill battle, with more than 20 amendments to the original proposal and voices from all points on the spectrum – some saying the ordinance is overreaching, others saying it’s not tough enough on the entertainment district, which encompasses the area of Old Town Scottsdale east of Buckboard Trail, from Sixth Avenue to Camelback Road. Throughout, Lane says those involved have taken great efforts to come up with equitable and universally applicable rules. The ordinance applies only to businesses that engage in one or more of the following activities: verifying age prior to admittance, employing a disc jockey, providing an adult service, and providing a teen dance center or utilizing a promoter. It specifically excludes movie theaters or city-approved special events.
“We did not focus on just bars or establishments that serve alcohol. We were looking at those establishments that had large venues of people,” Lane says.
He also says the ordinance will be city-wide, not just enforced in Old Town: “It is somewhat unfair if you selectively determine that one establishment, because of where it is, is subject to it, but somebody else who meets exactly the same criteria does not.”
Commander Jeff Walther of the Scottsdale Police Department emphasizes the ordinance is meant to be a tool to facilitate relationships between the businesses and law enforcement, rather than a punishment meted out to a few problem-child clubs or bars.
“I think at first blush... it’s easy to say that the reason the ordinance was created was to deal with some unruly clubs, but I think it’s greater than that,” Walther says. “At some point during the lifespan of a given club or bar, there’s an [incident] that we’re called to. This was really an opportunity to kind of forge that relationship with all of them.”
Real-Life Enforcement: Separate but Equal?
The general consensus among club and bar owners and managers is the ordinance will be helpful and, in many cases, they’re already practicing the measures spelled out in it, says Mike Fornelli, who has owned and operated nightclub BS West in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale for 22 years.
“I think it’s a pretty smart decision because when we first started here, we were the only bar out here and there weren’t issues, but there’s so much going on out here [now],” Fornelli says. “You can’t predict what your patrons are gonna do or what other people’s patrons are gonna do, so we’ve always had a fairly strict security policy here, just for the safety of our patrons. We’ve been doing it all along, so there’s really not a big change for us at all.”
Fornelli and co-owner Robb Salvato hire staff for all positions, so each employee is trained in security measures and no additional costs will be incurred as a result of the ordinance, save for the potential of hiring off-duty police in the event of multiple violations. His concern is with the practical enforcement of the new code and the numbers game of staffing.
“What I would find excessive is if they walk into a bar and there’s 170 people and there’s only three security people and they fine that bar for not having four security people,” Fornelli says.
Walther says that, in such a situation, the bar would be in compliance.
“They don’t have to have that fourth one there until they hit 200. If he has 170 and three security officers there, and we wind up catching him in the middle of that, we would just say, ‘Hey, 30 more people and you need to have an additional security officer.’ They’d be good to go,” Walther says. “Let’s say that they have three there and we get there to do an inspection and they’re at 205, so they’re one short. If we get there and we’re doing an inspection and [the manager] says, ‘We didn’t expect this size crowd, but I have a fourth on the way, and here’s their name, here they are on my list,’ we’re going to be pretty reasonable about that, unless this is a club that we’ve had problems with over and over and over again and we’ve had this same issue multiple times.”
Fornelli hopes the ordinance will be applied equally to all Scottsdale establishments, since he says that hasn’t always been the case.
“I’ve gone by a couple of places – I won’t mention them, but, you know, there are bartenders standing on the bar pouring shots directly out of a bottle into a patron’s mouth. If we got caught doing that, that would be a huge fine. I don’t understand how they can necessarily get away with doing that,” Fornelli says.
Walther won’t single out specific bars or clubs as being problematic, but he says the nexus of the entertainment district – Indian Plaza and the Saddlebag Trail area – draws frequent police visits as a result of its club density. He says the incidents at Martini Ranch are an anomaly. “They’re one of our oldest bars and we’ve seldom had incidents with them” during his 19 years with SPD, Walther says.
Alex Mundy, co-owner with Brian Mrochinski of two-year-old Rockbar, supports the ordinance but worries about the extent of security measures. “Obviously anything on the planet it takes to keep extreme violence [out]” is a good thing, Mundy says. But “sometimes you can get to a point where there can be security that’s a little too much. It can bring kind of a weird image if you’re at a bar and there are four cops standing outside every time you go in. You’re going to be a little suspicious or a little standoffish and wonder what’s going on there.”
Off-duty police don’t come cheap: They’re contracted out to clubs and bars for an average rate of $42 an hour. Businesses with an eye on the bottom line now have even more incentive to avoid costly violations, which come with fines ranging from $50-$2,000 depending on type, degree and occurrence of violation.
Ultimately, Fornelli feels the ordinance will positively affect nightlife foot traffic and revenue. “I think people will feel safer knowing that there is more security,” Fornelli says.
Rep to Protect
Of course, not everyone is on-board with the ordinance – or Scottsdale nightlife in general. A more vociferous opponent than Bill Crawford perhaps could not be found. Crawford owns Basic Training MedX Strength Training Center in downtown Scottsdale and is the president and founder of the Association to Preserve Downtown Scottsdale’s Quality of Life. Crawford moved to Scottsdale in 1997 because “it was like a Carmel in the desert, where you had high-quality residential right up to a very lovely downtown area.” He says the evolution of Scottsdale from cowboy town to club mecca is “a betrayal by the mayor and council to all of the people that moved here with high expectations of a high-quality life. All of the people who invested in non-entertainment businesses were just stunned.”
Crawford is a fixture at city council meetings – he made an unsuccessful bid for city council himself last year and plans on trying again soon – and feels the ordinance is “window dressing by the mayor. It really doesn’t address the problems, it gives them [bars] all kinds of leniency and a basic wrist-slap.” He championed extending the ordinance’s provisions, from higher fines for violations to increased regulations for special events.
Crawford and the members of his organization allege the nightlife scene has besmirched the reputation that Lane, Walther and city officials say they are trying to protect. “It took 50 years to build one of the most valuable brands in the nation. You go on the Internet now and you see gang fights, arrests, bar fights, brawls. It’s not the ‘West’s Most Western Town’ anymore. It’s filled with hoodlums, punks and drunks and the city’s done nothing to protect the residential element.”
Crawford and like-minded business owners say their properties have been negatively affected by the club crowds, citing instances of graffiti, vandalism, trash and even human waste in the streets, which prompted a 2012 ordinance cracking down on public urination and defecation (see sidebar, page 26).
Party Down (Safely)
For all the recent incidents of violence, there have been examples of well-executed and safe partying in Old Town Scottsdale. On September 21, the Sound Wave Music Festival drew 5,500 people from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with only one minor scuffle that Walther said the police presence swiftly de-escalated. In 2008, block parties for Super Bowl XLII proliferated throughout the entertainment district without any major incident, a feat the city will attempt to repeat for Super Bowl XLVII in 2015 in the hopes of getting a piece of the $600 million tourism pie it’s estimated to bring to the Valley.
Mayor Lane maintains Scottsdale is still the same city it’s always been at heart. He stresses cooperative improvements and a collaborative maintenance of the city’s safety credentials and its tourism-based economy.
“We don’t want to develop an ordinance that’s got a bunch of ‘gotcha’s’ in it,” Lane says. “We do want to have a safe environment and we want everybody pulling on the same oar. Most of the businesses have paid a premium to be here in Scottsdale and it’s as much a safeguarding of their value as anything else. We are a safe city, and we want to stay a safe city.”