Restaurant plan hinges on crosswalks

It remains to be seen whether a stricter jaywalking rule will allow a planned downtown Rock Hill restaurant to get the liquor license it needs to open.

But the head of the state's restaurant lobby thinks it would certainly help.

When state inspectors measure the distance between Citizen Corner and nearby Freedom Temple Ministries, they must take the legal route, said Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.

"If Rock Hill says you have to use a crosswalk and you don't, then they're jaywalking and that's against the law," Sponseller said. "They (inspectors) have to take the legal path -- the path a person would normally walk."

The City Council takes a second and final vote Monday night on a new jaywalking rule that would, in theory, change the legal path in downtown. The initial vote was 5-1 in favor.

Supporters hope the change will clear the way for Citizen Corner, a Southern-themed eatery, to open late this year in the renovated Professional Center at the corner of Main and Caldwell streets. A bar called The Vault is planned downstairs in the same building.

Last month, the state refused to give owner Hall Dozier a liquor permit because the restaurant location is considered too close to Freedom, two doors down. State law says that alcohol other than beer and wine cannot be served within 300 feet of a house of worship.

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.

If they measure under the new law, the added distance could put the restaurant just beyond 300 feet from the church.

"Our whole deal has been contingent on whether we can get our liquor license," said Dozier, who also owns Moe's Southwest Grill at Manchester Village.

City officials have cited safety as the impetus for the new rule. They're concerned that as more people visit downtown, walkers may dart out from behind parked cars -- and that drivers won't see them, particularly at night.

But they acknowledge the policy also would create a standard so that future restaurants could avoid similar troubles getting liquor permits in a downtown that has five churches.

Elsewhere in the state, other businesses that serve alcohol have dealt with the same issue. In Columbia, for example, Sponseller recalls that a Marriott hotel tried to sell liquor near a church. A fence that determined pedestrian traffic flow helped the hotel exceed the 300-foot threshold.

State officials in charge of the inspection could not be reached for comment last week.

Divided responsibilities

Sponseller said the frustration facing Citizen Corner points to a larger inefficiency with state government.

Years ago, the state had an Alcohol and Beverage Control agency in charge of issuing liquor licenses. It handled both inspections and actual permitting.

In the mid-1990s, however, the state closed the agency and divided its responsibilities between the State Law Enforcement Division and the Department of Revenue.

That means SLED, the same agency that investigates police-related shootings and other violent crimes, also is in charge of measuring between churches and proposed restaurants. Meanwhile, the Department of Revenue handles permit issues.

Often, Sponseller said, restaurant operators don't know which agency to ask for guidance so that misunderstandings over policy can be avoided.

"For SLED to have to send an agent out to walk off 300 feet, that's just a waste of time," Sponseller said. "They've got more important things to do -- homeland security and law enforcement. ... They need to improve it."

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said he hasn't heard much talk lately about consolidating alcohol enforcement duties back into one department. But he thinks it could make sense.

"It's an important function," he said. "You'd have some people that would fight creating anything new. (But) right now you have divided responsibilities, which is difficult for restaurants and others to know who to go to. It may be worth looking at."