Brandon Sutton on Mary Norwood and the Atlanta nightlife scene

Brandon Sutton: Setting the record straight on Mary Norwood and Atlanta nightlife

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The year 2003 was a pivotal one in Atlanta nightlife. City Council members Mary Norwood and C.T. Martin authored legislation that proposed changing the closing times of all Atlanta bars and clubs from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. At the time, there was intense resistance to the proposed change. Atlanta was a 24-hour city back then and the hospitality industry was a major source of tax revenue and employment in the city.

City Council was responding to a rash of violent incidents that had occurred in the Buckhead bar district. They were “a menace” to the affluent residents of the community. Indeed, there had been a series of high-profile shootings in the area in the preceding years and there was building pressure to get control over the situation. The controversial area now houses the ultra-posh The Shops – Buckhead Atlanta.

Mary Norwood took up the charge and authored a bill, alongside C.T. Martin, to change bar closing time to 2 a.m. for the entire city.

When the Norwood-Martin bill was being discussed month after month in the Public Safety Committee meetings, I was there along with countless bar owners, entertainers and other concerned citizens that joined together to work with City Council to avoid curtailing our city’s hospitality industry and irrevocably damaging it due to a few bad apples. This legislation would affect thousands of venues citywide. Imagine if you owned a bar or worked at a bar depending on tips, and two full hours of your prime-time sales were lost. It was a devastating proposition to those of us who worked in the industry.

Throughout 2003, the resistance mounted and we gained ground. Several Council members started to dislike the idea of a wholesale change to the entire city for one neighborhood’s small cadre of affluent (and vocal) residents. We thought we might win this, until it came back around to Mary Norwood.

Unfortunately, Mary was not interested in any alternate solution. She did not support anything that didn’t involve scaling back bar hours. Some club owners even offered to tax themselves to subsidize additional security in the areas that were most problematic (Police Chief Pennington at the time was open to these actions saying that APD could handle the situation with adequate resources). But, Mary was unmoved.

At least, on the night of the final vote, December 1, 2003, an alternative was floated and it stuck: 2:30 a.m. last call, 3 a.m. closing time citywide — an hour earlier than the existing code, but not the full two hours earlier originally proposed by Mary Norwood and C.T. Martin. The vote count was as follows:

11 Yays: Smith, Starnes, Young, Winslow, Fauver, Muller, Martin, Maddox, Mitchell, Norwood and Willis.
4 Nays: Archibong, Shook (a protest vote), Moore and Boazman
1 No-Vote: Woolard

Mayor Franklin signed the change into law on Dec. 9, 2003.

On Dec. 1, 2003, Mary Norwood’s crusade against nightlife was won, forever altering Atlanta. A month later, on New Year’s Eve, Backstreet was raided after a long battle to maintain its 24-hour pouring license. Councilperson Debi Starnes had led a similar crusade against the 24-hour clubs, including Backstreet, dating back to 2001, and after multiple appeals and alternative proposals to keep the club open, Backstreet’s luck ran out on December 31, 2003 just following the adoption of the Norwood-Martin bill. Backstreet never poured alcohol again, ending a true Atlanta icon of LGBTQ hospitality. Other establishments soon followed.

I’m writing to set the record straight.

Those of us who were here during the long struggle in 2003 remember. We not only remember what Atlanta was like in those days but we remember the lengths to which Mary Norwood went to change them.

This was Mary Norwood’s crusade, yet some of her supporters have recently suggested that she would be willing to reconsider the bar closing hours if elected mayor. This is clearly a case of pandering during an election year. We heard the same thing in 2009. Mary has been on and off City Council for 15 years; if she wanted to revisit the issue, she would have done it years ago. Better yet, she would have worked with the hospitality community in 2003 to come up with creative solutions to the problems the city was facing without resorting to draconian measures that stunted an entire industry. She did neither.

Mary’s record suggests she will smile for the photo ops but promote policies that sacrifice parts of the city to satisfy the well-heeled crowd once in office. Remember that when you’re posing with her at campaign meet-and-greets, occurring in the handful of LGBTQ nightlife establishments that we’re still lucky to have around.

Brandon Sutton is a 43-year-old Atlanta native and entrepreneur who spent a decade as a DJ and club promoter in the Atlanta nightlife scene, including high-profile residencies at eleven50, Halo, Compound and Backstreet. He is not a paid campaign staffer for any mayoral candidate.

Georgia Voice reached out to Mary Norwood’s campaign for a response to this editorial and will post an update here if received.