The ‘Downtown’ debate: Proposed security measures bring controversy to the Square

Posted on Jun 28 2018 - 8:00am by Devna Bose

Joey East realized a year ago that as Oxford’s population grew, so did its crime – especially on the Square.

As OPD’s Chief of Police, East began researching how to combat this surge. After studying vibrant downtown life across the country, East presented his findings to the Board of Aldermen and Mayor Robyn Tannehill, and the discussion about creating the “Downtown District” began.

“We invited all the downtown businesses,” he said. “About 10 or 12 people showed up.”

Oxford Police Chief Joey East discusses his plans and ideas for areas of The Oxford Square to be considered a “downtown district.” The Board of Aldermen will be holding another public hearing to consider the public’s worries and alterations. Photo by Christian Johnson

After a string of poorly-attended meetings, the proposed ordinance was again discussed publicly at the Board of Aldermen meeting on June 5. According to the ordinance, business within the Downtown District would operate under different laws and introduce a special set of requirements to create a district free from “drug sales, underage drinking, over consumption of alcohol, acts of violence and sex offenses.”

The proposed ordinance has since received backlash on social media, from business owners on the Square and citizens of Oxford. Qualms range from First Amendment violations, unnecessary expenditures for small businesses, invasion of privacy, age verification scanners and the parameters of the Downtown District.

The initially proposed Downtown District’s boundaries were South 10th Street, Van Buren Avenue, The Lafayette County Courthouse and East Jackson Avenue. After hearing concerns at the most recent Board of Aldermen meeting on June 19, however, the board is considering expanding the boundaries of the district. Concerns voiced at the meeting have also resulted in modifications

Oxford Police Chief Joey East shows clips of the busy Oxford Square on weekend nights. The clips were shown to demonstrate the need for The Square to be considered a “downtown district.” Photo by Christian Johnson

regarding the event permit policy, age verification scanners and security guard requirement.

A Facebook post made by The Lyric Oxford criticizing the ordinance, which received nearly 300 shares and more than 200 likes, states that the policy is “detrimental,” though its “intention is a good one.”

Bradley Bishop, owner of The Lyric, has since met with the mayor and Board of Aldermen, and several changes have been made in the wording of the ordinance since its first draft.

The Lyric declined to comment on the ordinance but a representative said the venue is “actively working with the city right now to change a lot of the language.”

Fat Possum Records also tweeted, “The @cityofoxford wants to have their police department approve any event that happens at @TheLyricOxford & other venues in the vicinity. We are all for improving safety, but the police are not in the promoter business.”

The language allowing OPD to deny venues the right to host an artist has been clarified, and a new draft of the ordinance was released by the Aldermen on Tuesday.

East said, “That was never our intention.”

Chef John Currence, James Beard award winner and head of City Grocery Restaurant Group, has been outspoken about the ordinance as well.

“It just seemed to me after considering the ordinance deeply that the city was putting themselves at risk, in my eyes, of creating something that was going to be extraordinarily controversial,” he said. “We are going to have a lot of people spend a lot of money for nothing.”

Two major points of contention for Currence are the seemingly rushed process and the lack of transparency from the city.

“It’s little bit unusual in the 26 years that I’ve been involved in the city politics, we’ve never had an issue like this that the city didn’t convene a task force before they began creating an ordinance,” he said. “In the past, they’ve always wanted to look at the issues from all sides and get a number of different, faceted views on whatever they were working on before they sat down and crafted an ordinance.”

Students and residents of Oxford arrive at the Square on a Saturday night as the sun goes down. The Oxford Board of Aldermen will soon hold more public hearing and eventually vote on legislation that would rename the Square a “downtown district.” Photo by Christian Johnson

Currence calls the proposed ordinance “reactionary,” citing the incident at The Lyric Oxford on April 27 when a gun was fired into the air.

“The city contends that it is in no way reactionary, but we had an incident that happened, and now we have a broad ordinance to that incident,” he said. “They hurried with no input from the public and threw together this ordinance.”

City leaders, however, maintain that the ordinance was not crafted in response to one incident.

Mayor Tannehill has been a part of the conversation for the past several years and said this discussion is not a new one and is a result of a growth in population in Oxford.

“We have had an issue for years of not knowing about large special events and at times being short-handed with officers downtown,” Tannehill said. “If we know what we are potentially dealing with…we can plan appropriately. That is the goal.”

Mayor Robyn Tannehill leads the Board of Aldermen in a public discussion on Tuesday. The meeting heard concerns and clarification about the bill to consider The Square a “downtown district.” Photo by Christian Johnson

She agreed that “some of the pushback was fair” because “we just didn’t have it right to begin with,” and she is hoping to be able to work together with business owners and Oxonians over the next few months to create a solid document. However, she doesn’t see the need for a task force.

“There was talk of forming a Task Force at the Board meeting,” Tannehill said. “I don’t see the need. We have had several.”

As for transparency, Tannehill believes the city has been as transparent as possible.

“This is an open process with input from anyone who wants to give it. I don’t know how we can be any more transparent. I have met personally with bar and restaurant owners and their attorneys repeatedly,” she said. “We have had one public hearing. After every single one of these conversations, changes have been made. And in my opinion, after every one of these conversations, the proposed ordinance has gotten better. We are not rushing this.”

The public is invited to another discussion regarding the proposed ordinance Monday at 10 a.m. at the Oxford Conference Center and Tuesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

“I think if you compare the initial proposed ordinance to the version now proposed, there is no way to argue that voices haven’t been heard and valued,” Tannehill said.

Chief East hopes that this ordinance will make the growing community of Oxford a safer place, a sentiment that is shared by Currence.

“There will be nothing but contention and hard feelings if we continue down this road where we are – cramming the ordinance down the throats of business owners,” he said. “I think that if we work together in a measured and thoughtful way, we can come up with something that will work for everyone.”

Read the proposed “Downtown District” ordinance here.