By Brad Lopez
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In the two weeks since Denver announced that it was revoking its split-premises permit for local cabarets -- a ten-year-old policy that allowed patrons under 21 years of age to be in the same building as those of legal drinking age while alcohol was served -- small modules of music types have organized to explore what, if any, action might be taken to convince the city to change its mind. The all-ages debacle, as well as related (or unrelated, depending on whom you ask) topics such as Ecstasy use, will be a focal point of the next Colorado Music Association meeting, slated for Sunday, April 22, at the Soiled Dove. (Of course, if the meeting involves any live music -- i.e., the jams that sometimes follow official COMA business -- those under 21 will be asked to vacate the alcohol-ridden premises.)
But according to Helen Gonzales, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, this kind of populist showing is too little, too late. The policy change, she says, has no chance of being reversed. Zero. Zilch.
"The only route anyone can go at this point, if they want to see a license where the ages can intermingle in a cabaret, is to work to get the law changed," Gonzales says. "I have been pushing for this particular law to be changed for quite some time now. That's the process that needs to be followed in this instance. There is no other avenue for these people to get what they are asking for."
Denver police detective Michael Patrick, who's familiar to most cabaret licensees as the DPD's main enforcement man within the Department of Excise and Licenses, says he has encouraged bar and club owners to form a lobby for years so that they could push through a licensing change that would legally allow for mixed-age crowds. But the owners ignored his suggestion, Patrick says. In his view, the split-premises permit was a temporary -- and flimsy -- solution to a more complex problem, a Band-Aid that was bound to wear thin.
"When we originally conceived of the permit, we did it because we knew we had to create some places where people under 21 could go," Patrick says. "We knew they needed social outlets and activities and all that. But it got to the point that there were more people operating under this permit than our staff could possibly monitor; we simply do not have the manpower to send vice squads out to all of these establishments to be sure that they are complying with the requirements. And what we found was that many of them were not doing a good enough job of policing themselves. At that point, it becomes a public safety issue, and that is what we have responded to."
Denver's policy change should not surprise any of the operators in his jurisdiction, Patrick adds. And while he acknowledges that recent drug stings by the DPD vice squad, which resulted in arrests at three nightclubs, sped things along, the department's decision was a long time coming. With or without Ecstasy, the city would have ended split-premises activity by June or July.
"I have had multiple conversations with all of the major bar and club owners in this city, and they have all been aware that this policy would not hold for long," Patrick continues. "The city cannot be responsible for the fact that they chose to ignore that. There is absolutely no way that any of them could look me in the eye and say that they did not see this coming."
But Regas Christou says he did not see this coming. His club, the Church, was the first to have its split-premises privileges revoked; it happened last month after a drug sting resulted in the arrests of two youths, both of whom were in the all-ages portion of the club when they unwittingly conducted an X transaction with vice officers. Since then, the Church has become a sort of rallying point for the anti-X contingent; its unmistakable gothic facade is in the background of Channel 7's X-bashing editorials. Christou also says his attendance numbers on Thursday night -- the one night of the week in which the venue is alcohol-free and all-ages -- have dropped ever since false reports were aired that the Church was no longer allowed to host clubbers under 21 years of age.
Patrick's statement that bar owners should have known what was coming is just as inaccurate, according to Christou.
"I am dumbfounded that Patrick would say that," he says. "When this happened, it was an absolute shock to me. I don't know why they are doing this to us. It is heartbreaking. I spoke to Patrick many times about a lot of things; I know him. But in every discussion we had about all-ages stuff, he would tell me what needed to be done, if anything, and we would do it. We don't have problems with our teen nights, as far as people intermingling and whatnot. It is impossible to mix. As far as drugs, we do our best as a club owner. We do as well as the police department could do. We have massive security. It's a safe place.