The shots that rang out as bars closed early Monday this week sent Minneapolis officials scrambling to stem the violence that often springs out of chaotic bar closings. For local business owners, who've changed hours and even moved locations in reaction to the late-night violence, a solution couldn't come soon enough.
Three innocent bystanders were hospitalized and two men were arrested in the shooting near the Gay 90's nightclub at about 2 a.m. Monday. It fit into what has become a predictable pattern of violence at closing time along the First Avenue entertainment corridor, particularly after 2 a.m. on weekends.
"I have never seen or heard the city in such an uproar as I have this last week ... over the incident that happened on Sunday," said Tim Mahoney, owner of the Loon Cafe and president of the Warehouse District Business Association. "I think what it basically was was the straw that finally broke the camel's back."
Mahoney puts a lot of the blame on poor management at certain clubs that host so-called "18-plus" events on Sundays. Several years ago he decided to close the kitchen early on Sunday, preventing the under-21 crowd from coming inside. "It's definitely affecting our bottom line," Mahoney said.
City leaders are discussing various solutions and announced Friday that Hennepin County will double the number of sheriff's deputies patrolling downtown this weekend and extend their shifts until 3 a.m. They're also debating tougher penalties for problematic clubs, staggering or extending bar closing times, or providing more late-night food options.
The violence is reflected in the statistics. Violent crime has risen 60 percent this year in downtown Minneapolis. But First Precinct Inspector Eddie Frizell said most of that occurs between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. near First Avenue in the entertainment district.
City officials insist that downtown as a whole remains safe, but they fear the ripple effects that bar-closing violence will have on people's perception of the area.
"A mass majority of people who are downtown are not downtown at the nightclubs at 2 in the morning at bar close," said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents downtown. "But it doesn't matter if they're at risk or not, because when there is a perception that there's a crime problem, that perception becomes a reality 24/7."
Perception or reality, it takes a toll on the local economy.
Bar owner Erik Forsberg began preparing to relocate last summer when after-hours violence escalated in the club district. Shootings and stabbings that followed club closings were scaring away his customers at the Ugly Mug -- to the tune of about $50,000 in June.
"My business just completely dropped off because of it," said Forsberg, who sold the business and now runs a new bar, Devil's Advocate, near Nicollet Mall and far from the violence. "That's a staggering blow which takes months to recover from."
Dario Anselmo, owner of the Fine Line Music Cafe on First Avenue and 4th Street, said he has lost "tens of thousands of dollars" annually because of the violence.
"The business owners down there are tired of it," Anselmo said. "We have a crisis every year about this time of year. And if you know you have a crisis happening every year, then it really shouldn't be a crisis. It should be dealt with."
Anselmo said he believes the city needs to commit more resources to both police and regulatory efforts to help stem the problem.
Andrea Christenson, a vice president of the real estate firm Cassidy Turley, saw the ripple effects last year when trying to lease commercial space on First Avenue to restaurants. Several serious prospects walked away after witnessing the chaos at bar close.
"We had letters of intent going back and forth when they backed out," said Christenson. "They said, 'Have you been down here after midnight?' "
Club owners such as John Barlow claim they are often unfairly targeted. Barlow, who co-owns Epic on 5th Street, said they scan customers "like an airport" using metal detectors, hand wands, pat downs and even checking inside shoes. He says he bears some responsibility for bringing the crowds downtown "and trying to run a business," but he can't control violence on public streets.
"When are people going to be held responsible for their own conduct?" Barlow said. "I can police the front of my business. ... But when they go down into a parking lot or they go a block away, at some point I have to hand them off to someone."
In an interview, Mayor R.T. Rybak sounded a warning to the "few key bars" creating what he called "nuisance nights" on Sunday: "Knock it off or we'll be tougher in regulation. And we're looking right now at what we can do."
Rybak cited the "success" last year of actions taken against the club Karma (co-owned by Barlow), the scene of several violent incidents, which was regulated so heavily that it shut its doors.
But stiffer penalties also have their limits: The violence hasn't stopped, and Karma's clientele has dispersed to other establishments nearby.
A lot of attention is focused on the exodus that occurs when liquor service ends at 2 a.m. -- clubs must be empty by 2:30 a.m. "It's like the beginning of a race: Lift up the doors and all of the horses run," Celeste Shahidi, the owner of two buildings on First Avenue, described the scene. She thinks bar closing hours should be staggered to prevent the rush.
"From a public safety issue, it would be better to stagger closing so that some people are coming out at one time and another and another," said Rybak, who is also open to considering extending the closing time. "It's not the best to have everybody out on the street at 2 o'clock. But which business do you allow to stay open later or earlier is always the challenge."
Goodman said club owners hosting problematic 18-plus events need to take more responsibility. "They need to step forward as being part of the solution," he said. "Because we cannot police our way out of this."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper