Peering through the front windows of her French-Creole-influenced restaurant in downtown Columbus, Mary Broussard can see the temporary lights now illuminating Fifth Street South in front of the Columbus Light and Water office — a section of downtown that was the scene of a shooting early last Sunday morning.
Bullets sprayed at least five vehicles parked in the area, including two that were occupied. No one was injured, but it’s not the first shooting to have taken place outside The Princess Theater, the downtown nightclub where — until Tuesday — more than 400 people would congregate on weekend nights, to say nothing of crowds in nearby parking lots. As one would expect, the shootings have Broussard worried about crime — not just downtown, but all over Columbus.
“It’s getting scary,” she said.
City employees installed the temporary lights Wednesday, the day after a city council meeting in which Mayor Robert Smith pledged to increase lighting in the downtown area, install surveillance cameras in parking lots around The Princess and increase police presence there on weekends. At the same meeting, The Princess Theater’s owner, Bart Lawrence, made concessions, offering to close his business at 10 p.m. (3 1/2 hours earlier than the former 1:30 a.m. closing) and shut off the theater portion of his venue, reducing the club’s capacity from 488 to 163 — and significantly affecting the club’s profits, Lawrence said.
“We did everything that we felt we could do,” Lawrence said. “We tried to make people — whoever we needed to — aware of the problem with people loitering and not very much was done. … We’re willing to accept all responsibility for anything we’ve done that we can accept responsibility for. But we just want to work with the city, not against.”
Broussard thinks the city’s changes, combined with Lawrence’s concessions, will go a long way to improving the state of downtown — if they’re implemented.
“I would like for them to keep their word,” she said.
Not all business owners necessarily think there’s a crime problem downtown. Susan Mackay has owned a Party and Paper — previously Kwik Kopy Printing — for 32 years. Until January when it moved around the block to Main Street, her business was directly across from The Princess.
“I have always felt safe downtown,” she said.
The problem was never with The Princess’ patrons, she said. It was instead people who congregated downtown and stayed outside the businesses, who she said loiter and leave beer bottles in the street.
Mackay thinks closing down part of The Princess and limiting the number people inside the business was a generous concession on Lawrence’s part, but she doesn’t think The Princess needs to close earlier — after all, plenty of college kids from Mississippi University for Women go to The Princess, and most of them don’t even get out until after 10 p.m., she said.
‘City’s got to step up’
Developer Chris Chain, who has bought and is renovating two buildings across the street from The Princess and owns several other businesses throughout the downtown area, also rejects the notion of a “crime problem” downtown.
But Chain thinks even isolated incidents and the publicity surrounding The Princess shooting could hurt business and development downtown.
“Do you think I want to put a couple million dollars downtown if they’re not going to make it safe?” he said.
Part of it is Lawrence’s responsibility, he said — if nothing else, Lawrence’s club draws large numbers of people, many of whom are drinking on city and private property, littering, loitering, making noise and causing disturbances.
But the city’s also got to step up, he said, particularly the Columbus Police Department, which he believes needs to have more officers patrolling the area and moving trouble makers along.
“The owner’s got a big liability in this and responsibility, and the city does too, and they both need to do their jobs,” he said.
Following Tuesday’s city council meeting, Lawrence agreed to meet with city and police officials, as well as downtown residents and other business owners, about ways to work together to curtail downtown crime. Both Broussard and Chain say that’s a step in the right direction.
“I think that was a big move to show he’s a serious business owner and he’s willing to step up and do what it takes,” Broussard said. “I had not seen that so far.”
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