Nigel Wellington, 17, is the drummer for the popular, local rock band Dirty Words. Nigel and his three band mates are an up and coming band, attracting an age range of followers from 15 to 25 years old. Their last performance at Mai’s Café on May 14 was a hit, but the scene in Ventura is changing and the likelihood of Dirty Words playing again at a similar venue to the same audience until late into the night is slim.
It’s not because their music isn’t making the grade or that some new bands have taken over and are pushing others out — it’s because the Ventura Police Department recently decided that any business with an entertainment permit that serves alcohol cannot allow anyone under the age of 21 to stay or enter past 10 p.m., with the exception of the Ventura Theater. This includes every restaurant, cafe and coffee house in Ventura that serves alcohol — even if it is just beer and wine — and has live performances.
Since Dirty Words and other local bands often don’t stop playing until 11 p.m. or later, half or more of their audience will now be excluded.
“I’d say, for the condition Ventura’s scene is in, this can and will affect underage audiences,” Nigel said. “It’s sad because if this rule starts to harden and becomes more enforced around here, we just won’t play there. Overall, it’s a blast playing shows but as a fan — if a band I wanted to see plays after 10, supposedly, I would be [screwed].”
This policy is a new provision that all business owners serving alcohol and food must abide by once they obtain or renew their entertainment permits — and all permit renewals must be turned in and paid for by May 31. As noble as the intention may be to steer teens away from situations that could lead them to drinking, the new provision has nothing to do with any incidents of underage drinking at such establishments — no drunk teenagers stumbling out of a restaurant, or someone being hurt while getting intoxicated at a particular show. This came about as a proactive measure to prevent teen drinking by stopping business owners from creating all-ages events.
“Probably the No. 1 reason wasn’t that we found a bunch of kids drinking downtown or checked in bars and we found intoxicated individuals — we noticed fliers advertising mixed party nights,” said Lt. Quinn Fenwick of the Ventura Police Department. “So that is what brought it to our attention — not that you can anticipate everything, people who can drink and people who can’t drink shouldn’t be partying together.”
Fenwick said the business owners had been “taking advantage of a loophole by virtue of being an eating establishment.”
“It could possibly hurt people, but we restrict drug dealing, too,” he said. “Saying that it is a good environment — pressure party situations — [is not right], and the city of Ventura shouldn’t sanction that. The bottom line, is you do have to set some standards. I don’t think the standards of adults and juveniles drinking together — I don’t think that is healthy.”
The problem: Ventura has never really had any all-ages venues that could be likened to a nightlife social scene — something that young adults, coming of age, desire. Ventura has had such places to go as the Alpine — the skateboard park and gaming center — and The Garden Village and The Underground — which were popular coffee houses. All of them have since closed down. There are still a couple of similar venues that have recently opened, but they just aren’t necessarily what the most young adults are looking for.
And most, if not all, nightclub owners would say it is nearly impossible to make any money, i.e., stay in business, on an all-ages venue without serving alcohol.
According to one local, house parties were the rage less than a decade ago because there simply wasn’t anything happening in Ventura back then — and if anyone under the age of 21 wanted to go out at night beyond the coffee houses, the skate park and house parties, they would just head north to Santa Barbara’s Isla Vista where college kids and frat parties abounded and still do, or south to all-ages events in Los Angeles.
With the crackdown on such all-ages events in Ventura, these young adults and teens who follow such bands as Dirty Words have no place to go. And no matter what plan these business owners have to prevent underage drinking, the police’s final answer is no.
For Jared Williams, owner of Hush Restaurant and Lounge, the new provision might have been a little drastic, considering how he personally runs his business and how tightly he runs his security to prevent underage drinking.
“It doesn’t really seem to be a solution that is going to work very well,” Williams said. “We had a couple of all-ages nights, where we would have a couple hundred [people] in our business, and there has not been one underage drinking incident.
We are an upscale restaurant and cocktail lounge, and we were excited to provide an alternative experience to underage youth that had no where else to go.”
Williams also provides a licensed security guard for every 20 to 25 people, when the requirement is one for every 100 people. He was also told by the Ventura Police Department that he could come up with his own safety and security plan that would outline how to prevent underage drinking in his establishment, but the plans weren’t given much credence by the police, and were thrown out.
“I have the utmost respect [for the police] and I know there decisions are made for the welfare and safety of the public,” he said. “But it is affecting my business tremendously.”
Williams noted that it didn’t seem fair that while other business owners are suffering, the Ventura police would line the streets when a concert at the Ventura Theater would let out — and that incidents of underage drinking have happened there, including a 15-year-old girl who fell down drunk in the street coming out of a concert.
He also said that forcing underage youths, ranging from 18 to 21 years old, to find other places to go — less safe, controlled and patrolled — could result in the very thing the police were trying to stave off: drunk minors.
Williams isn’t alone. Steve Hoganson of Zoey’s Cafe and Entertainment was pretty perturbed when he was told of the new provision.
“It is a problem for me,” Hoganson said. “We are more of a family-type environment.”
Zoey’s Cafe caters to adults and youth alike — and always has. And Hoganson was so concerned about the drastic changes that were made, he was hesitant to renew his entertainment permit at the time of this interview.
The City of Ventura is, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department and the Oxnard Police Department, the only city in the county where the law enforcement has written such a provision for entertainment permits. Simi Valley’s police department was unreachable by deadline.
Special Projects Commander Martin Myer of the Oxnard Police Department said that Oxnard doesn’t have a similar requirement on entertainment permits. But Myer called the action of the Ventura Police Department an “innovative approach” to underage drinking.
Ross Bonfiglio of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department said that the action of the Ventura Police Department appeared to be a unique situation.
He wasn’t aware of any similar situations where his department had added a provision to entertainment permits — more for conditional use permits regarding fire hazards and the like.
Fenwick of Ventura called the provision an administrative provision — an addition to the regulatory language of the permit.
As restaurant and cafe owners adjust to the new requirement, the question of where young adults in Ventura can go to for nighttime entertainment remains unanswered.