Night life venues get a say on Modesto limits

Restaurant and club owners will have a seat at the table in talks over the next few months that could lead to new restrictions on all downtown entertainment venues.

The Modesto Police Department on Wednesday unveiled a starting point in those discussions with a draft proposal that would require those businesses to obtain revocable permits even if they don't offer dancing.

Today, only clubs and restaurants where people dance are subject to city entertainment permits.

Police Department leaders say a concentration of clubs that developed over the past three years requires an excessive amount of their resources. They also contend that the club mix deters other types of businesses from flourishing.

"It absolutely is about diversity," Assistant Police Chief Mike Harden said. "It looks and feels like we are unbalanced downtown."

The City Council's Safety and Communities Committee used the department's draft as a launching pad for a new commission that will be charged with evaluating downtown policing plans.

The group -- consisting of city and business officials -- is expected to write safety recommendations within 90 days.

Business owners have said they worry the proposed restrictions could limit downtown's economy, particularly if coupled with a moratorium on dance permits.

"In this case, it's the police basically deciding the growth of downtown," said Chris Ricci, Fat Cat Music House & Lounge general manager. "It's not right."

No new dance permits for now

Police Chief Roy Wasden said the department will not approve new dance permits for the time being. The 13 businesses that hold them have a combined capacity of more than 5,000 people.

The Nines restaurant at 10th and J streets recently applied for a dance permit, but the Police Department rejected its request. Before making the application, the restaurant had been cited for allowing dancing without a permit.

Wasden said the department would not reject dance permit renewals for the businesses that hold them now, unless they break the terms of their agreements.

"There is a limit to what we can handle as a Police Department, which is why we're not going to give a new dance permit," Wasden said.

Modesto's club scene has exploded since 1999, when only the DoubleTree Hotel's Club Max held a dance permit. Three clubs had them in 2003.

Ten had them by 2006, and three more added dance permits this year. Five are clustered near 10th and J streets.

That's a sign of a booming entertainment economy, argued Modesto Area Music Association co-founder Chris Murphy.

"We can look at this is as a nuisance, or we can look at it as an opportunity," Murphy said.

But it also created problems for the Police Department, such as unruly crowds at Labor Day 2006 and St. Patrick's Day events this year that required help from dozens of out-of-town officers.

$500K to police downtown

The cost of policing downtown, meanwhile, increased tenfold since 2003, rising to nearly $500,000 last year.

Wasden said the department likely would assign pools of beat cops to the neighborhood this fall when new recruits hit the streets on their own and several injured officers return to the force. Now, the downtown is policed on weekends by officers working overtime.

Councilmen Brad Hawn and Will O'Bryant, who make up the Safety and Communities Committee, said they wanted to balance downtown's growth with proposals that would enable the neighborhood to "police itself." They asked the new commission to return with updates on its progress.

"There's obviously a big interest in growth, but we're at a point where we need to manage that growth," O'Bryant said.

O'Bryant said downtown's safety problems don't play well in the rest of the city, where residents complain that their homes are at risk while the Police Department devotes 12 to 14 officers to downtown each week- end.

"Every citizen is involved in this because every time the police have to come downtown, my home is not protected," he said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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