Making nightclubs safe: the Minneapolis model

In the days since the Rhode Island and Chicago nightclub tragedies, city officials from Boston to Dallas have ordered squads of fire marshals to crack down on nearly every late-night lair in their cities. It's a high-profile effort to convince people that such calamities will never happen there.

But here in Minneapolis, home to the largest nucleus of nightclubs between Chicago and Seattle, the response was more low-key - an e-mail. It was sent out by a police staffer, calling a meeting of the city's "entertainment task force." This group of club owners, police officers, and fire inspectors represents an unusual attempt to bring public and private interests together to solve a problem - and may serve as a model for other cities looking to improve nightclub safety.

The group meets at least once a month to hash out everything from dance-floor densities to bouncer etiquette. Today they'll meet again, filing into the ultramodern police station in the heart of the city's gritty Warehouse District - Minneapolis's version of Greenwich Village - an area near the Mississippi River where former storage buildings are now entertainment sanctuaries.

Like so many thrusts of civic safety, the solution here was born of chaos - a series of club-related riots in 1998. And it's paid off. Even as the number of clubs has jumped, crime has declined. There's the recent success story of The Fine Line, where a band's pyrotechnic display last week sparked a massive fire. Unlike the Rhode Island tragedy, however, everyone got out safely - thanks to well-placed exits and well-trained staff.

Not quite warm and fuzzy

"[At] those first five or six meetings, it was a lot of 'us versus them,' " recalls Luther Krueger, a crime-prevention specialist in the first precinct who runs the task force from his cubicle.

Since then, relations have definitely improved.

But neither is the task force about authorities and owners waxing warm and fuzzy. A club called Banana Joe's was recently cited for repeated occupancy-limit violations - and was slapped with $30,000 in fines. Now, to make its point, the city has ordered the club to close for four days.

"Like it or lump it, they have to do it," says Mr. Krueger.

But over the years, both the owners and authorities have come to understand a simple principle: They need each other in order to survive.

The clubs need the cops, for instance, when patrons get out of control. "No matter how big their bouncers are, sometimes there are things they can't handle," says Krueger. Clubs need police support - and because of the spirit of cooperation, they get it.

Meanwhile, the fire department needs the clubs because in Minneapolis - as in so many cities - inspectors are stretched thin. Here, four inspectors are responsible for thousands of buildings.

The more code-conscious the clubs, the more efficiently inspectors can work. Nor is closing bars in in the city's interest. As fire Marshal Tom Deegan points out, they bring big tax revenues.

Finally, clubs need fire inspectors because of the fire regulations' Kafkaesqe complexity. Quest club executive Shannon Swedberg says of Chief Deegan: "He and his people are tough - but they're fair, and they help by giving us specifics about what we need to do."

Chic bouncers and new calm

Indeed, the story of Quest is illustrative of the changes the task force has wrought.

This 24,000 square-foot space - with soaring ceilings and a wrap-around balcony - was started with the help of the city's rock-star native son, Prince. But by the late '90s it was known as a dangerous hangout. In 1999, two men were shot outside. Fights were frequent. Police pressure began to build. So did peer pressure from other club owners - much of it exerted at task-force meetings.

Among other things, Quest changed its approach to security. Instead of "bouncers," it now has security "staffers," who act like State Department diplomats first, and Clint Eastwood second. "We're not here to rough people up," says Brook Dombrovski, a black-suited staffer who looks more supermodel chic than leatherneck tough. If patrons are causing problems, his first approach is to ask for ID. "Once they give me that, they tend to calm down - because they know we can report them."

The number of 911 calls related to Quest has dropped from 245 in 1998 to 78 in 2002. Patrons have noticed. "I feel safer here than I did six months ago," says Sarah, a woman standing at the bar on a recent salsa night. Now other clubs are turning to Quest for ideas.

District-wide, crime is down, too. The area's overall club-and-bar capacity jumped from about 17,000 in 1997 to 22,000 in 2001. But the number of thefts per year dropped from nearly 350 to about 225.

Familiar warnings

Now when a new club is opening, Krueger presents its owners with a list of requirements the task force has agreed on. Among other things, owners must pick up trash within 100 feet of their buildings - and attend the monthly meetings.

Last week, when a pyrotechnics-induced fire broke out at The Fine Line, the city's nightclub community faced its latest test.

"I think people were surprised at how firm my voice became in telling them to get out of here," says club manager George Milberg. The owners had recently put in a new exit, which made getting the 120 customers outside easier. Although the blaze caused $1.5 million in damages, no one was hurt.

At today's meeting, Deegan will go over fire-code issues. And Krueger will hit his usual theme of avoiding overcrowding, which leads to the overserving of alcohol, more fights, and more crime: "They'll roll their eyes at me, because they've heard it so many times." But better that, he says, than not hearing it at all.

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