The Kids Are Not Alright
Mayor Martin Chavez sounds what could be a death knell for all-ages shows in Albuquerque
"Very simply, what I want to do is eliminate alcohol from all-ages venues."
—Mayor Martin Chavez
"We really haven't had, certainly with the Launchpad, any problems. But I think there's an overall philosophy that's recently been expressed about the mix of kids in a place where alcohol's being served."
—City Attorney Bob White
To hear Mayor Martin Chavez tell it, the story is one of a dangerous problem that found its way to his office via concerned local club owners. And that's partly true. There are occasional problems in downtown Albuquerque with regard to its night life, just as there are similar problems in nearly every city of similar size in the country. When alcohol is available, some people will inevitably and unfortunately drink too much of it, and some of those people are bound to raise hell. Most cities, though, contain, if not completely solve, such problems with a visible but nonthreatening police presence, reasonable and enforceable laws and regulations on the books, and the cooperation of club operators and the communities in which they work.
That brings us to "Albuquirky," where the norm often borders on the abnormal.
It also brings us to a press conference some 10 weeks ago, at which Mayor Chavez blindsided Downtown club operators and their underage patrons by proclaiming that all-ages shows in Downtown venues that serve alcohol to patrons of legal age should be banned. Why? Because the mayor believes that all-ages shows are contributing to increasing violence, underage drinking and an overall sense of danger pervading the fledgling Downtown entertainment district, especially on weekends. In order to achieve his goal, Chavez has contacted the state liquor control office suggesting new, stricter regulations be put in place for only small and mid-sized venues where alcohol is served in the presence of minors. Large venues where alcohol-consuming adults and kids co-mingle, like Journal Pavilion, bowling alleys and Isotopes Stadium, would be exempt from the mayor's plan.
Cheryl Hooks, of the Albuquerque Music Association—a group of several hundred musicians, bar owners and supporters of the Downtown arts—argues that no tangible evidence exists to suggest that an under-21 presence at all-ages shows Downtown contributes in the least to violence, vandalism or general mayhem. Such information, if it actually existed, would be a matter of public record, meaning that Joe Citizen would have unfettered access to it, she said.
Crime in Downtown has decreased by 50 percent since last year according to the city's website, said Hooks, adding: "Marty uses scare tactics and says we want to make Downtown safe. Dude, statistically speaking, it is safe." Although the association formed last year with the intention of making Albuquerque a destination city, not a departure city, for music fans, Hooks said, "Now we have a greater cause."
Longtime Downtown club operators, like Joe Anderson of the Launchpad and Sunshine Theater and Mike Goodwin of OPM, say that the real problems can be attributed to the increase of cruising along the Central and Gold corridors.
Goodwin, in fact, took his concerns about cruisers to the mayor a few months ago, and asked for a broader police presence Downtown, instead of what he said was a concentration of cops on the Fourth Street Mall and a minimal presence around his club near Second Street and Gold.
"I went to them with concerns over cruisers on the street," said Goodwin. "The mayor has decided to say the cruisers are there because of underage kids."
The mayor, however, seems to have a clear agenda, and it is to put a stop to what Albuquerque City Attorney Bob White calls "the mix" of underage kids and drinking (and nondrinking) adults who congregate regularly for all-ages shows at the Launchpad, Sunshine Theater and, to a lesser degree, easterly venues like Pulse.
For what reason exactly?
There exists none, according to Anderson, save for the ones created by and churning around in the mayor's own gray matter.
"If the mayor's concern was really kids being in the presence of alcohol,” said Anderson, “he'd be trying to enforce his proposal across the board. Both Isotopes Park and Journal Pavilion have more violations than [the Launchpad and Sunshine Theater], so why are we being targeted? I think this is all motivated by something else entirely. I wish I knew what it was."
On the surface, Mayor Chavez's agenda seems fueled by his desire to appear "tough on alcohol-related problems," "pro-public safety," and determined, as he says, "to clean up Downtown." These would seem like reasonable goals that Downtown businesses and City Hall could work together to attain. But looking below the surface, the story gets murkier.
In an interview with the Alibi last week, Goodwin, referring to the push to ban all-ages shows at Downtown venues that serve alcohol, said, "Marty's targeting the Downtown business community and that very much concerns me. For him to take people out of business because he can't solve the problem of cruisers Downtown, that's just ludicrous to me."
Goodwin, who has operated clubs Downtown for nearly 20 years, said "noncustomers" who cruise the streets are coming from outside of the city and harassing, threatening and sometimes inciting violence. He said the problem is obvious, yet City Hall's reaction hasn't made sense. "I have the alcohol division in my bar now checking IDs three times a week," said Goodwin. "That's not the problem!"
According to longtime City Attorney Bob White, there is currently no age restriction with regard to all-ages shows. The current regulations, he said, came about mainly as a result of Journal Pavilion and Isotopes Stadium. Both venues were to feature alcohol service, so the previous set of alcohol regulations had to be changed in order to make legal the service of alcohol in the midst of minors.
According to Mayor Chavez, the problems that result from the mix of minors and alcohol are specific to Downtown clubs. And although White makes a clear distinction between a Downtown club like Colosseum, which he says has been identified as a major culprit with a long list of violations, and the Launchpad and Sunshine Theater, the mayor remains determined to put an end to all-ages shows in rooms where alcohol is being served.
"I had a visit from a group of Downtown bar owners led by Mike Goodwin about what [they] perceived to be an alarming increase in violence or potential violence in the Downtown area," the mayor said. "Then we went and brought in other bar owners and merchants, the Downtown Action Team and the Albuquerque Police Department. One aspect of the problem is young gang-bangers Downtown, and a lot of the problem is centered around Colosseum."
As a result, Chavez said his administration came up with a comprehensive strategy that's designed to address cruising by making Gold Avenue unidirectional after 10:30 or 11 p.m. on weekend nights, while also stepping up the police presence, both uniformed and undercover.
"That's been done on my direction in a nonconfrontational manner," said Chavez. "I told APD I don't want red lights flashing against the KiMo. That's not the Downtown I'm interested in presenting. Very simply, what I want to do is eliminate alcohol from all-ages venues."
"I think there's an overall philosophy that's recently been expressed about the mix of kids in a place where alcohol's being served," adds City Attorney White. "There's a lot of issues with people getting out on the streets."
But Anderson questions the mayor's push for revised liquor regulations and the sincerity of his reasoning.
Anderson says he feels he's being unfairly attacked, perhaps as part of a plan to force the club, both Chavez and White have identified as the real problem, to close.
"What the mayor doesn't understand is that if we have to do all-ages shows that are alcohol-free," he said, "the people who would normally drink at those shows will just go next door or to any other bar Downtown and drink between bands. His plan accomplishes nothing."
While live music fans—particularly those under the magic age of 21—have been e-mailing the mayor opposing his desire to end all-ages shows and shut venues down, the mayor continues to reply that the controversy is just a misunderstanding.
"There's absolutely no desire to put all-ages venues out of business," Chavez has said repeatedly. "I simply have to have an environment for young people that's alcohol-free."
While it's nothing more than a question of semantics, what the mayor proposes is not that the Launchpad, Sunshine, Pulse or any other specifically identified venue be shut down. However, according to Anderson and other opponents, the proposal—to put an end to underage attendance at venues that serve alcohol—effectively leads to that very result, barring city funding or underwriting.
Unable to serve alcohol to legal patrons at all-ages shows, venues such as the Launchpad, Sunshine Theater and Pulse will eventually be forced to close up shop, reason being that said venues cannot pay performers—an increasing number of whom refuse to book anything other than all-ages shows—security, operating and other inherent costs, without the benefit of bar receipts, which their hard-fought, paid-for and enormously taxed liquor licenses buy them the right to accept.
This slight but important difference in the mayor's plan and how it's been perceived and protested by the people who will be most egregiously affected appears to have resulted in some clever spin-doctoring on behalf of City Hall.
Several weeks ago, the Alibi published a letter from Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer James B. Lewis titled "Misguided Youth," in which he asserts that "recent plans announced by Mayor Martin J. Chávez ... to implement a myriad of public safety initiatives and infrastructure improvements Downtown does not, nor ever did, include plans to: 1) shut down the Launchpad or Sunshine Theater; or 2) put an end to all-ages concerts or shows."
Lewis went on to insinuate erroneously that City Hall officials continue to see incidents of underage drinking at the Launchpad and Sunshine Theater despite the fact that neither establishment has ever been cited. But it's both of those venues that will bear the brunt of new restrictive liquor regulations, while other venues such as Journal Pavilion, Isotopes Park and local bowling alleys will continue with business as usual.
When asked if all-ages shows Downtown are a source of underage drinking, Deborah James, the mayor's spokeswoman replied, "That's exactly how they are getting it."
That's not how Mayor Chavez' daughter, Martinique, got it. Ironically, as the Alibi went to press, news broke that early last Sunday morning Mayor Chavez' 14-year-old daughter, Martinique, was issued a citation by the police after admitting to being intoxicated.
Police were called to a home on the 6200 block of Alta Monte NE after neighbors heard loud noises and suspected that someone might be breaking in. Officers entered the backyard of the home and found a group of teenagers that included Martinique. The group took off running but was quickly apprehended. Police noticed that Martinique and a16-year-old boy were visibly drunk. The two kids reeked of alcohol, they said, and seemed to have difficulty standing. The responding officers were not members of the Party Patrol, the police task force created to break up parties where underage drinking is taking place.
Downtown business owners like Anderson hope that such unfortunate incidents might clue the mayor into the fact that most Downtown bars aren't a significant source of Albuquerque's underage drinking problem. Actually, according to public records, Journal Pavilion and several other high-profile venues and events outside of Downtown have been cited repeatedly for problems with minors and alcohol, although Anderson has not been cited once. There is also the matter of a recent tragedy at the Sunshine Theater—when it was under different ownership—where a 22-year-old janitor killed a 16-year-old girl who had attended a show. As horrific as the episode was, it had nothing to do with alcohol. The perpetrator, however, was a convicted sex offender.
"What's not clear to everyone, apparently," said Anderson, "is that drinkers and nondrinkers are completely separated at the Launchpad and Sunshine Theater, unlike the situation at Journal Pavilion and Isotopes Park," where kids can roam freely while adults drink as much as they want.
"Our business models are built around all-ages shows," he continued. "Without additional revenue from alcohol sales, we'll be forced out of business, plain and simple."
Mayor Chavez responded to the notion that his proposal will force some small businesses Downtown to close, saying, "If the difference between [The Launchpad] making money and not making money at all-ages shows is selling alcohol, then I guess it's an alcohol issue and not a music issue. I see no reason why they can't have all-ages shows without serving alcohol."
As for events such as the New Mexico State Fair, the Balloon Fiesta, SummerFest, the Fiery Foods Show and others where alcohol is served in the midst of minors without the benefit of segregated drinking and nondrinking areas, separate entrances or enhanced security, Chavez stated: "That's not where the problems are."
Not true, says Anderson, who says the minors-and-alcohol problems and potential for them exist almost exclusively at larger venues and events where "the mix" takes place.
"Selective enforcement is actionable," said Anderson. "I'm just waiting to see what kind of goofball plan comes down so I can decide with my attorneys how to fight it. I mean, saying that there are two or three clubs in the entire state of New Mexico that need to be shut down while every other venue gets to do pretty much whatever they want is not only ridiculous, it's just plain wrong. I can't believe it's gotten this far, but it's entertaining to me to see how [the proposal] changes every couple of weeks based on the reactions of club owners, liquor distributors and the Downtown business community."
There is one other component to the story that deserves mentioning. The mayor repeats another of his familiar concerns—that Downtown's economic viability is "fragile," and that the perception that violence is erupting as a direct result of all-ages shows is somehow a threat to Downtown's revitalization efforts.
"I'm mystified as to why I can't get [restaurants like] P.F. Chang's and some other businesses—which should be a surefire thing—to come to Downtown. I just want to make sure Downtown doesn't get destroyed in its infant stage."
The implication seems to be that kids going to rock shows Downtown somehow contribute to the scaring off of selective corporate restaurant chains that have opened in other parts of the city. But there's plenty of evidence to suggest that virtually the opposite is taking place. Downtown pubs and restaurants like Tucanos, Sushi King, Ned's, The District, NYPD and at least half a dozen others are invested in Downtown. In fact, new restaurants continue to sprout up in the downtown area on a regular basis, the most recent being the Library and multi-level Flying Star.
Those opposed to Chavez' proposed all-ages ban say the welfare of our youth who frequent the Downtown entertainment district has little, if anything, to do with the mayor's latest initiative. Instead, Hooks said, by getting rid of Downtown nightclubs that cater to the punk, metal and rock fans, the possibility of attracting more corporate tenants who are long in the pocket and short on community involvement increases.
Which leads to the larger community issue: Are more corporate tenants Downtown what Albuquerque really needs, or would our city benefit more in the long-term by fostering a vibrant and viable local arts and music scene propped up by a mixture of local and community merchants?
But it's at least as likely that the inability of the city to attract the corporate tenants it wants has little or nothing to do with the kind of entertainment being offered. The Convention Center, for instance, is perpetually underused despite the fact that it's an attractive, multi-use facility that's hosted its share of big names in entertainment. Are all-ages shows to blame for its problems as well?
And, according to Goodwin, who also holds a commercial realtor's license, chain restaurants often choose locations based on population density and traffic statistics which deserve consideration.
"P.F. Chang's bases their location on traffic counts," he said. "I've seen their business profile and they want 100,000 cars a day driving by their front door. It has nothing to do with nightclubs Downtown. We don't have the street capacity [Downtown] for what they are looking for."
Why are a few venues being targeted while others are not? To date, Mayor Chavez has failed to respond directly to the question that is essentially at the heart of the matter other than to say the problem is unique to Downtown. Instead the mayor has chosen to make it clear that his administration's mind is made up on the issue regardless of evidence or the lack thereof.
But perhaps part of the answer lies in the mayor's attempt to avoid the question.
"Crime stats are pretty good Downtown," he said, "but APD confirms that there's a new element we're dealing with, particularly after 11 p.m. [Downtown] changes post 11 o'clock, and it takes on a character we're just not used to—the real potential for violence—and there was an across-the-board request for action."
Goodwin acknowledges that he and a few other club owners requested action, and he applauds the mayor's efforts to combat cruisers who cause trouble and don't even patronize the clubs and restaurants Downtown. But he also says the city could do more to improve the situation by setting up taxi stands on Central and increasing the police presence without harming businesses by limiting their customer-base or sending undercover officers inside the clubs.
Ironically, just days ago, Mayor Chavez took a page from Gov. Bill Richardson's playbook and announced his intention to create a Music Advisory Council, presumably with the intention of relying on the experience and expertise of people outside of City Hall who are entrenched in the local music scene. It's a fantastic idea on paper and makes for yet another great press conference and photo opportunity.
But Anderson, Hooks and others opposed to the mayor's alcohol-free all-ages shows mandate say there's a very real chance that the Music Advisory Council will have very little advice to offer should Chavez move forward and see his proposal through to fruition.
One hopes these are issues that will be resolved before all-ages shows Downtown become a relic to the past.
Tim McGivern contributed to the reporting of this article.