Downtown Aiken is known for its quiet charm and fun, low-key nightlife, which the City wants to maintain.
A recent report on teen parties by WRDW stemmed from a 40-minute video, taken by downtown business manager Jack Hostettler. He captured a large group of rambunctious teenagers, some yelling and cussing, leaving a party that was held at the Municipal Building on March 28. Reports of fights, including one teenager who was injured after he was hit with a collapsible baton, were also made that night.
After seeing the video, concern was sparked by several Council members, and the City is taking action to avoid future problems.
'This is gonna be trouble later'
Josh Nicholson is a bartender at Playoffs Sports Bar on Richland Avenue. He was eating dinner with friends at Takosushi, which is right across The Alley from the Municipal Building, on March 28. He said things were starting to get out of hand in The Alley while they were there.
“We were eating with an off-duty police officer,” he said. “Even she looked up and said, 'This is gonna be trouble later.'”
Nicholson and his friends later went to Playoffs, where they saw a group of about 20 kids run past the bar. One of the kids said another youth was “knocked the (explicative) out,” Nicholson said, adding that he and a friend went looking for, and found the child who was assaulted.
“Apparently, between six and eight kids had chased him down, and they jumped him,” he said. “He just fell in my arms and started crying.”
The victim was wobbly on his legs, bleeding from his nose and had a contusion on the back of his head, according to Nicholson.
That night, three people called the Aiken Department of Public Safety regarding the disturbance.
“They're being disruptive. Every time it happens, there's always a fight,” one caller said on the tape provided by the City. “They should come out here and control this because it happens every time they have this.”
Capt. Phil Kestin, a spokesman for Aiken Public Safety, said officers got the call near the end of the 40-minute video that was aired on TV, and were on the scene within four minutes.
“There was an assault, and three arrests were made,” he said. “It was like any other call we respond to with someone assaulted, dealing with the victim and identifying who assaulted them.”
Kestin said the Municipal Building has been rented out since 1987, and officers have rarely responded to an event.
“With all this happening because there was one incident caught on video, where the person recording the video didn't even bother to contact police – that is what has encouraged this talk around town,” he said. “But, there's very few incidents at all since the facility was rented that police have had to intervene in.”
Hostettler said he didn't call police while the disturbance in The Alley unfolded.
“I took the video just to show the Municipal Building that there's a lot of negativity going on,” he said. “I have heard that there were previous accidents beforehand. I decided to take this video to say, 'Look, this is what's going on. This is the reaction.'”
The group behind the party
FT² threw the party from 7 to 11 p.m., and has held about 22 events, with at least half of those held at the City's conference center, said Alisha Barnes.
Barnes runs FT² with her three daughters – Dehavelyn Barnes, 21, and Fredericka and Frelicia Tucker who are 14-year-old twins. Barnes said her twins are good students and highly active in school sports like track and tennis. She said Dehavelyn is a senior at the University of South Carolina and is currently studying abroad.
The purpose behind FT² is to offer kids ages 12 to 15 something fun to do rather than being out in the streets and getting into trouble, Barnes said. Barnes said the parents serve as chaperones, as well as USC Aiken students. Attendees pay $5 to get in and Barnes said that they often put the money they get from these events back into the community.
Barnes said the March 28 event was fine until the party ended and the teenagers scattered outside.
There was only one other documented incident at an FT² event in December in which two fire alarms were pulled and there were some vertical blinds broken in the conference center, according to a damage report. A police report reads that officers responded to a fight in progress at the Municipal Building and they found an “active disturbance” between several teenagers in a parkway on Newberry Street.
The deposit for that rental covered the cost to fix the blinds, according to City Manager Richard Pearce.
After the March 28 event, Barnes said she immediately contacted the City to see what she could do to better handle these situations.
Barnes also canceled her conference center rental for June.
“I don't want any negativity coming toward the City of Aiken,” Barnes said. “I take pride in my city.”
Fredericka and Frelicia have heard from friends that they are worried that FT² will not hold anymore parties. The girls have told their friends they will, but everyone needs to behave and they have asked for that message to be spread to the other teenagers who attend their events.
City officials taking action
At the May 13 City Council meeting, Pearce said Council is looking into its procedures with rentals after hearing about the incident.
He said staff has looked at colleges and universities nationwide to see how they handle renting out their facilities. Pearce said they have talked to both Aiken Technical College and USC Aiken, too.
“Our staff is conducting a review and discussing the best approach for Aiken based on experiences these other venues have had,” he said.
Kestin said Aiken Public Safety is part of those reviews and discussions.
“The comments that the City manager and Council made are encouraging us to look at our procedures and have other City departments work with us when they know they're going to have large events,” he said. “We work with those departments to determine if additional security is warranted or needed.”
Barnes had hired Vause Security out of Graniteville for the event in March – there were more than 247 attendees. Pearce said that, based on their investigation, they believe that was not adequate. Barnes has been asked to contact Public Safety 30 minutes before an event ends and an officer will be sent out. Barnes did so in April when she had an event at the Fermata Club and said they had no problems.
Some of the schools work with a grid system to determine the level of security needed at events. They look at how many people will be attending, the time of day an event is occurring, if alcohol will be served and other various factors. Pearce said the grid system seems to be a good place to start.
“Incidents like this give us the opportunity to pause and see if there are things we can do differently, things we can do better,” Pearce said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure that we have a downtown for people to enjoy visiting. That's always on our minds.”
Impact on business?
Hostettler told reporters with WRDW and the Aiken Standard that the disruption in The Alley had a negative impact on his business' patrons, at least for that night. “People were scared to go out, so they were just asking if they could just wait it out,” he said. “They moved in from the screened-in porch area to the bar.”
Two people also canceled their reservations, he said.
Hostettler said it's the first time he's seen such a disturbance downtown.
“If we have these parties, can we have them more strict to where it's not out of control, such as this?” he said. “The kids need places to go. I agree with Alisha 100 percent. I don't support the negativity behind it.”
Nicholson, too, said it's not a frequent sight in downtown.
“I can see if that was a recurring thing,” he said. “If it's a 'once in a blue moon' thing, it probably won't affect business that much.”
Nicholson said downtown after dark is no place for unsupervised children to be running loose.
“Kids don't need to be running around a bunch of adults who are probably being idiots because they're drinking. That's just a bad combination,” he said. “If you're gonna have a function downtown for children like that, one, there needs to be way more supervision. Two, there needs to be a curfew on them. ... I'm not saying that's the responsibility of Aiken Public Safety, but if the City is renting out that building, they need to be aware of who they're renting to, the function, when it starts, when it ends.”