The crackdown downtown

Entertainment task force and new neighbors are putting the squeeze on downtown clubs

Distillery manager Jim Barr recently crossed paths with the city’s new entertainment task force.

Distillery manager Jim Barr recently crossed paths with the city’s new entertainment task force.

Photo By Larry Dalton

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The soundproof curtain was up, and the noise down, when live music shows resumed at The Distillery two weeks ago. It was alternative rock on Thursday, September 28, followed by punk groups the next two nights, with a portable curtain assembled near the front entrance of the 2107 L Street bar to muffle noise. Earlier in the month, neighbors had complained about band noise, leading police to ticket manager Jim Barr and forcing him to suspend shows for nearly two weeks.

After music resumed, Barr and his security guards took turns patrolling the street, making sure the din wasn’t too loud. At one point it was—or so Barr thought—and an act was told to quiet down. But three days of shows without police appearance eased fears.

“After getting through the whole week—and we’re going to do much more with the soundproofing—I think we can make this work. I really do,” Distillery security guard Frank Mattox told SN&R.

It may be a small victory for downtown entertainment, which has had a tough year, with one venue being shut down and a number of bars ticketed, amid new city guidelines, increased enforcement and complaints from new downtown residents.

The Distillery first received a verbal warning from the Sacramento Police Department’s entertainment task force on Thursday, September 14, for not having a fingerprinted manager and two uniformed security guards present. Officers returned around midnight the following evening, showing up, Mattox said, “like they caught us robbing banks or something.”

The police claimed the noise was setting off car alarms and said the drummer for the band A Single Second—who was assembling his gear outside while another band played inside—was performing an outdoor sound check.

Officers ultimately cited Barr for violating his venue’s entertainment permit. Barr cut A Single Second’s set short and later canceled four nights of shows, after police indicated they’d close the business if noise weren’t reduced.

Barr has booked acts at The Distillery for a decade. He disputed that band noise triggered alarms, telling SN&R that vehicles passing could have caused this. However, he said he’d do what’s necessary to operate in compliance and that he wants shows at The Distillery, at least as long as he’s there.

“We’re part of the culture of downtown, and that’s what we’re trying to preserve,” Barr said.

Conflict may have been looming, though. The Sacramento Police Department says it’s increased enforcement in the past year, with help from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The Distillery also has gotten complaints from tenants of St. Anton, a high-end condominium complex that opened across the street on April 28.

“I think the thing that gets me about The Distillery is they’re getting these complaints that weren’t there before,” said Jerry Perry, editor of the local music publication Alive & Kicking.

Former Magnolia Thunderfinger lead singer Skid Jones blamed residents. “It would be like moving across from the airport and complaining about the noise,” Jones said.

A St. Anton employee declined to comment, though resident Debbie Rafter said she moved downtown for its culture and revitalization. “That’s why we’re here,” Rafter said. “At least, that’s why I’m here.”

Certainly, the new neighbors aren’t the only pressure on downtown venues. Revisions to the entertainment permit went into effect in 2004, requiring bar owners to provide security and purchase dance permits for $700 and then renew them every two years, at $95 a pop. Under the old regime, permits were good for life—and free.

To enforce permit revisions, the Sacramento Police Department debuted its entertainment task force in January 2006 to patrol downtown, said Lt. Don Rehm, a watch commander. Rehm said the task force works in six-officer, one-sergeant patrols and spends the majority of its time responding to noise complaints.

“One of our jobs is to try and reach a balance between the residents and entertainment venues,” Rehm said.

Rehm also said a $125,000 grant from ABC in July 2006 has helped pay two officers who work with ABC in conjunction with the task force.

Eight-year downtown-bar security veteran Mattox said that since January law enforcement has become “just another adversary,” adding, “These were the guys who were going to back us up if anything went wrong.”

The Distillery isn’t the only place affected. “It’s on the edge of harassment, and the bar owners are afraid,” Midtown Business Association President Shawn Eldredge said. “They’re afraid to step up.”

Terry Sidie, who owns Faces, Headhunters and Club 21, said that although he attended meetings before permit changes were implemented, he was nonetheless fined $3,000 December 30 for selling to a decoy at Faces.

“That’s what they kept telling me at all these meetings: ‘It’s not you, Terry; it’s not you.’ And I’m like the fourth person who got hit by this sting,” Sidie said.

Not everyone has received just fines. For years, Troy Agid wanted to run an all-ages music venue. In January, he opened alcohol-free Junta on the K Street Mall. The problems he was to endure are compiled on a four-page timeline.

According to his timeline, a week before opening, Agid learned he needed a costly “Change of Use” permit for the building. He learned in March it was set for redevelopment anyhow, right about the time police busted him for having two security guards, instead of the required four, at a small show.

“They were going out of their way to be jerks,” Agid said. “According to them, that is their job description. They’re there to be dicks and shut us down.”

Code enforcement finally revoked Junta’s entertainment permit in April, saying the building could not be brought up to code. Agid was left nearly $100,000 in debt, he claims.

Councilmember Steve Cohn said he hadn’t heard of complaints from bar owners about police, telling SN&R, “I’m not aware of any major movement.”

For now, with a November 3 court date, Barr is organizing a series of benefit shows, including a reunion for Shots Fired and the Diseptikons on December 1, to raise $4,000 to soundproof the back patio and the stage area. Ironically, the curtain for the front entrance came from Junta.