For years, the city of Portland and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission have worked as uneasy partners in law enforcement, playing a game of "good cop, bad cop" with bars they identify as problems.
But since taking office in 2012, Mayor Charlie Hales has chafed at the partnership.
He asked the OLCC to let the city set a 10 pm curfew for bar patios, but it refused. He wanted the agency to crack down on pubs serving revelers at Last Thursday—no dice.
Now, the city is working on a way to gain greater clout and enforcement power over bars, taverns and other late-night venues.
The proposed solution: a new city permit for businesses serving the public after 10 pm.
The permit—and the threat of revoking it—would give the city leverage to compel changes in a business's operation or shut it down altogether.
City officials point to a 35 percent increase in retail liquor licenses in Portland and an overall increase in community events as reasons to more closely regulate the entertainment industry.
Growing friction between late-night venues and residential neighbors is also a problem.
"The overarching reality is that Portland is becoming a city [where] there are more and more interactions between late-night establishments and their respective neighbors," says Chad Stover, a project manager in Hales' office. "We have to find a way to get along."
A draft report and presentation on the proposal, obtained by WW, argue that a "late-night activity permit" would give the city more authority to regulate a small percentage of "bad actors."
According to the draft report: "High-risk populations are drawn to nightlife districts to engage in high-risk activities, including alcohol consumption and drug use."
Internal city documents say the permit would beef up what city officials call "limited local control over business activity." The documents add that Portland's "partnership with State OLCC falls short" in addressing problem bars and taverns. Businesses that receive citations, the documents say, view them simply as a "cost of doing business" while "adverse impacts continue."
Theresa Marchetti, liquor license specialist for the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, says details of how the permit would work, and the new standards it would impose on late-night businesses, have not been worked out yet.
As a result, it's not yet clear how the city would measure the program's success. But Portland is studying similar permitting programs in other cities, including Seattle, Denver, Milwaukee, Austin, Texas, and Victoria, B.C.
Marchetti says the intention would be to address a wide range of conflicts, not just major ones that could threaten a bar or tavern's liquor license, and that the answer might be as simple as better communication between businesses, neighbors and the city.
"What we're finding is that the expectations of what is acceptable are very different," she says.
For the past several years, Portland police have been pressuring music venues not to book hip-hop and electronic dance music shows because of potential threats to public safety.
Cops argue that hip-hop shows pose a greater risk of violence because they attract gang members. Roseland Theater owner David Leiken calls those cracking down on hip-hop and EDM "the culture police" and sees the late-night business permit as a move by the city to exert more muscle.
"This should not see the light of day," he says.
He has also worked with the city to minimize disruption to the neighborhood. These efforts, he adds, have not been cheap.
âPaying for permits on top of that,â Thrasher says, âseems like not the best use of resources.â