Quietly, city aids bid for liquor at downtown eatery

Pedestrians use the crosswalk on East Main Street in downtown Rock Hill on Wednesday. Rock Hill will soon enforce a stricter jaywalking rule in the downtown area. Some question whether the real reason the stricter rule is being enforced is to enable a downtown restaurant to serve liquor.
Pedestrians use the crosswalk on East Main Street in downtown Rock Hill on Wednesday. Rock Hill will soon enforce a stricter jaywalking rule in the downtown area. Some question whether the real reason the stricter rule is being enforced is to enable a downtown restaurant to serve liquor.

As he tries to convince the state to issue a liquor license at his highly anticipated downtown restaurant, Hall Dozier is relying on a helpful, if a bit quiet, ally: the Rock Hill City Council.

On the surface, a stricter jaywalking rule approved by the council this week bears little connection to Dozier's plans for a Southern-themed eatery called Citizen Corner.

But the new rule might be exactly what he needs.

The state has refused to give Dozier a liquor permit because his restaurant at the corner of Main and Caldwell streets is considered too close to Freedom Temple Ministries, a church two doors down. State law says that alcohol other than beer and wine cannot be served within 300 feet of a house of worship.

"I'm not going to open a high-end restaurant where you can't serve liquor," Dozier said Wednesday.

That's where the jaywalking rule comes in. Rather than simply being able to walk across the streets of downtown wherever they want, pedestrians would be required to use only marked crosswalks.

When state inspectors measured the distance between the church and the restaurant, they walked the shortest distance from one building to the other. If they measure under the new law, inspectors would take a crosswalk at one end of Caldwell Street into account, and the added distance could put the restaurant just beyond 300 feet from the church.

Now, some critics are questioning whether the real reason for the new rule is to enable a downtown business to serve liquor -- and more importantly, whether city officials were forthright in explaining their purposes.

"If we're going to do these things, let's just be honest about it," said Willie Lyles III, executive director at the neighboring Freedom Center, the church's outreach arm.

"This is exactly why you have people that don't trust their political leaders. They say one thing, but their motive is totally different."

Lyles joined a downtown advisory group called the Main Streets of Old Town Association this year. He said other members of that group have pitched the rules as a way to help Citizen Corner and other downtown prospects.

At Monday's council meeting, staffers cited only safety as the impetus for the new rule. As more people visit downtown to eat out, shop and attend festivals, city officials say they're concerned about walkers darting out from behind parked cars -- and that drivers won't see them, particularly at night.

No one mentioned Dozier's predicament, and the proposal passed 5-1, with Kevin Sutton dissenting. Sutton could not be reached for comment.

Councilman Jim Reno said after the meeting that safety concerns are a valid basis for taking action. But he also said the problem facing Citizen Corner created urgency to do it now.

"The Dozier plan probably pushed it along quicker than an overall safety concern," Reno said. "He's out there trying to get permits. That might be an aspect of it that made it (get) pushed more by staff."

Police: Issue hasn't come up

The police department, which is in charge of public safety, said this week it has not gotten any complaints about jaywalking problems in the downtown area.

But Lt. Jerry Waldrop referred all questions to City Hall, saying it's not a police issue because the rule hasn't taken effect. One more approval is required at the Sept. 10 council meeting.

Meanwhile, two longtime store owners say they haven't encountered problems with jaywalkers nor heard customers voice fears about crossing the streets.

"I've been here on Main Street it seems like forever," said Antonio Barnes, owner of Barnes Hair Salon. "I've never heard of anyone almost getting hit. We don't have a lot of foot traffic right now, in my opinion. I haven't heard one negative thing."

"I haven't had anybody complain about that at all," said Betsy Rock, whose Overhead Station gift shop moved to Main Street from nearby on Oakland Avenue six years ago.

City: Trying to be proactive

City Manager Carey Smith said the new rule is aimed at preventing future mishaps.

"To say that we've had 25 accidents in the last 30 days, I can't say that," Smith said. "But I can say this is a growing problem that we want to address before something happens. We're trying to be proactive."

Smith acknowledged the rule can help Dozier's case but said he views it as part of a larger issue. The jaywalking policy, he said, would create a standard so that future restaurants could avoid similar troubles getting liquor permits in a downtown that has five churches.

The state inspectors in charge of issuing liquor permits couldn't be reached this week.

"Instead of a state bureaucrat who does it his way, we prefer to have it done in the way that our people move about our downtown area," he said. "So that when those measurements are made, they're based on how people walk."

Asked whether the full reasoning behind the policy was explained at the council meeting, Smith said, "I don't have an opinion on that."

Church: Explanation in order

Herb Crump, pastor at Freedom Temple, said he has no objection to Dozier's restaurant plan, including the alcohol aspect. But Crump dislikes how the process has been handled. He said no one from the city approached him in advance to talk about the situation.

"Of course, we wouldn't support a gentleman's club or something," said Crump, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2005. "But a family-oriented restaurant, we're not against."

Crump said the city's handling of the situation reminds him of the mentality taken two years ago toward a construction and debris landfill on Vernsdale Road. In that case, neighbors criticized the city for not using the term landfill in describing the project to the public, even though the term was used in internal city e-mails.

"They need to learn to treat all citizens fairly and improve communication," Crump said. "We're not against economic development. We just want things done fairly and respectfully."

Last week, city department directors traveled to Blowing Rock, N.C., for an annual overnight retreat. The focus this year was on technology and finding better ways to communicate with the public.

Proposed jaywalking rule

Between intersections where marked crosswalks are in place, and where mid-block crosswalks also are in place, pedestrians can only cross in those crosswalks.

The rule would be relevant only in downtown because it's the only place with mid-block crosswalks, city officials say.

Plans for a restaurant and bar

A Southern-themed restaurant is planned in the renovated Professional Center, a five-story building in downtown.

Hall Dozier, who also owns Moe's Southwest at Manchester Village, envisions an eatery called Citizen Corner and a downstairs bar called The Vault, where live music and drinks would be offered.