When Johnny Mims first learned about the city of Atlanta’s current nuisance ordinance, he was reading a news article about the closure of Encore Hookah Lounge in Downtown.
The nightlife entertainment venue had a two-year streak of violence that led to two shooting deaths, a reported aggravated assault and more than 170 incoming calls to the Atlanta Police Department citing illicit activity.
Prior to its closing, the city filed two separate complaints in court that detailed how it had exhausted its means to resolve the matter with Encore’s owners, noting how violence that began from incidents within the club stemmed to large issues of safety for surrounding businesses and tourist attractions.
The conversation surrounding the city’s nuisance properties has been ongoing since former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration. Back in 2020, Bottoms moved to strengthen the policy by establishing a cross-departmental group to streamline the city’s response and empowering the city’s overall ability to remove or revoke alcohol licenses for nuisance violations.
In May, the City Council introduced an amendment to the current nuisance ordinance in conjunction with Mayor Andre Dickens’ new nightlife crime division. The update calls for the city to close a business or residential property that is deemed a nuisance by the municipal court twice in 24 months.
Mims owned the now-closed Johnny M’s Pizza Bistro in the West End, and is currently president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive Merchants Association, a collective of small, Black-owned businesses on Atlanta’s Westside. He says that the new amendment to the ordinance sets an unclear precedent of how the city would protect Black small-business owners who feel they could be unfairly targeted by the crackdown.
“Even in learning about Encore, their ultimate closure at the hands of the city was related to nothing that management and its owners could control, in my opinion,” Mims said. “We can’t control rowdy patrons and a high level of crime that is touching every part of this city. All we can do as business owners is provide quality service and, for some, that means under extremely unsafe conditions.”
In July, Mims decided he would attend a work session for the city’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee to voice his opinion on the proposed amendment to the current ordinance.
“My goal in attending the meeting was to show that our community is engaged and we care about the outcome of what happens in City Hall because it directly impacts us,” Mims said. “It’s very easy to assume that we are being negligent to our community when we, too, are victims of nuisances.”
Atlanta City Solicitor Raines Carter says that his office has identified more than 70 nuisance properties and has filed over 10 complaints and temporary protection orders for immediate closures of two businesses. “We are actively working with the district attorney’s office to seize repeat offender properties,” he said.
The city must follow six steps to identify and effectively close a nuisance property. Once identified, the solicitor’s office will perform an extensive investigation with the help of APD’s code enforcement division before filing a formal complaint with the Municipal Court. After filing, a hearing involving all parties must be held in front of a judge within 45 days. If substantial evidence is corroborated, an order will be issued that requires the property to remain closed for no more than 12 months.
It’s a process that takes time, and leaves business owners vulnerable to crime outside of their establishment. City leaders hope the amendment will help speed up investigations and set clearer, stricter guidelines for shutting down nuisance businesses, and residences. City Council members will now vote on Aug. 1 to amend the current ordinance.
In all, Carter says the process is a collaborative effort between the city, Atlanta Police Department, and the municipal court system, with the main goal of closing businesses and properties that have charges of drug, violent, illicit, or sexual activity against them. It’s an issue that council member Marci Overstreet says was her main reason for supporting the ordinance and proposed changes.
Overstreet says that Deja Vu Sports Bar and Lounge, a nightclub in northwest Atlanta, was the source of anguish for District 11 constituents who were constantly calling her about ongoing illicit activity at the venue prior to its closing.
“On a city level, we were constantly trying to reach the owners with no avail, and members of my community were suffering the consequences of the activity brought by the establishment,” she said.
During a presentation at the July working session hosted by the Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee, it was revealed that, along with Encore, five more businesses — Ghost Bar, 1050 Social Club, Kiss Ultra Lounge, Deja Vu Sports Bar and Lounge, Brooklyn Kitchen — were closed under the current ordinance.
That’s why Overstreet says she supports the law, stating that when bad apples are removed from a community, opportunities that benefit the upstanding citizens and business owners can resume.
“It’s necessary to get these properties under control,” Overstreet says. “As a city, it’s our responsibility to make sure that all members of the community are providing safe living opportunities for their neighbors, whether that is a commercial or residential property.”
However, Mims says that sometimes it is not the fault of business owners, citing lack of police presence, ongoing gang violence, and a growing homeless population as potential issues that could lead a business to fall in that category. With added pressure from predatory real estate investors and inflation costs for small businesses, he says that owners along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive are trying their hardest to stay afloat without city support.
“It’s not like we are trying to purposely create these scenarios,” Mims said. “Because of the gang violence, we can’t generate enough business to hire multiple, if any, security officers. We can’t afford off-duty officers even if we wanted to, and it’s making many of these longtime businesses fold under pressure.”
Previously, APD had a policy that prohibited off-duty officers from providing security at adult entertainment establishments. APD Interim Police Chief Darin Schierbaum recently announced plans to eliminate the rule, a move that Overstreet says evens the playing field for owners in those categories.
“It was unfair and unfortunate that despite putting safeguards in place, these types of businesses were at risk of nuisances that wouldn’t be an issue with the presence of sworn officers,” Overstreet says.
Mims says he hopes that the city is cognizant of and concerned about Black small-business owners in an already hostile climate.
“We simply want it to be known that we are actively trying to rectify the situation, but we need some support from the city,” Mims said. “We just want to be heard before it’s too late.”