A three-month police initiative aimed, in part, at lowering the number of driving-under-the- influence offenses has had some sobering effects, according to local bar owners.
As the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office enters the final month of Operation Thunder, a 90-day state crackdown on traffic violations, Jeremy LaFontaine attributes a 50 percent revenue decrease at Joe’s Underground Cafe since mid-February, when the operation started, to the increased presence of law enforcement and weekend road blocks.
“We’ve seen a huge drop-off,” said LaFontaine, owner of the bar at 144 Eighth St. “It’s definitely hurt a lot.”
The downtown Augusta business, which he purchased four months ago, has been forced to make cutbacks to compensate for the drop in customers. In an effort to save money, LaFontaine said he has curtailed staff hours, advertising and the number of bands booked at the bar.
“I know what they’re trying to do, and it’s hard to argue,” LaFontaine said of Operation Thunder. “It’s kind of like a double-edge sword. It’s almost in a way like they’re targeting bars.”
The operation has led to 216 DUI arrests, 74 of them from April 25 to 27, said Lt. Lewis Blanchard, of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Community Services Division.
“The main goal is saving lives,” Blanchard said. “We’re not looking to negatively impact any legal business out there.”
Blanchard said the effect felt by those running a nightlife establishment might be an over-estimation. The latest figures given to him by Augusta’s License and Inspection department showed the amount of alcohol excise tax paid to the city by businesses allowing on-premise consumption dropped collectively by just 1 percent for January, February and March from that same time period last year, Blanchard said. Reports for April will not be available until May 20, the deadline for businesses to submit their information.
“It appears that for any business that has had a decrease, it is due to a nearby business that has increased,” he said.
LaFontaine contends that he’s talked to other owners and bartenders downtown who have faced similar hardships.
“There’s no reason people can’t go out, have a few drinks and have a good time, but people really are scared,” he said.
“We’re careful,” he added. “If you can’t tell us what you want then we’re not going to give you something.”
Stillwater Taproom co-owner Matt Flynn said business has been slow the first few months of 2013 when compared to previous years.
“I don’t know if it’s directly attributable to Operation Thunder, but it certainly hasn’t helped things,” he said. “A number of my friends have expressed that they’re not willing to go out until it’s over.”
Some bar owners, including Matthew Widener, have tried to combat the dip in sales by offering free rides home for patrons uncomfortable driving after a night out.
“It’s helped us a little,” said Widener, who owns Surrey Tavern off Highland Avenue.
Widener estimated that his revenues have dropped by about one-third since the crackdown started.
“I understand the reasoning behind it,” he said. “I’m definitely an advocate of not drinking and driving. It’s just unfortunate that it impacts my business.”
For Blanchard, the operation has thus far helped accomplish its goal of making local roadways safer. In 2012, there were four fatalities each month on Richmond County roads. So far this year, there has been on average less than one death reported per month.
With less people willing to risk a DUI or a more tragic outcome, other businesses, such as taxi and tow companies, have boosted their proceeds, Blanchard said.
“A lot more people have made the proper decision, and that’s why the taxis are busier,” he said. “That’s why we see more vehicles left in parking lots at 4 a.m. when we get through with our operations.”