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Atlanta's nightlife battles back

Let's face it: Atlanta may not have a vibrant downtown, world-class museums, efficient public transportation or stunning ocean views.

But at least we always had one thing going for us: a rockin' nightlife.

We could banshee-dance until our legs gave out at the Chamber, wait till the wee hours to see who took the stage at Yin Yang Café, and stagger out of Backstreet just as the sun was peeking out.

And no matter where we traveled, when a stranger would learn we were from Atlanta, talk would turn to familiar touchstones: the Braves, OutKast, Gone With the Wind, the Olympics - and the Buckhead party zone, dude.

But for club kids and pub crawlers, the January 2004 debut of the 3 a.m. closing time for Atlanta nightclubs came like a sucker punch to a swollen liver.

Nearly a year-and-a-half since City Council trimmed our nightlife by an hour, the situation isn't pretty. Some Atlanta nightclubs have closed while others limp along on diminished expectations.

As it turns out, the 3 a.m. curfew is only the most visible of many wounds now bleeding the city's nightlife scene. Most intown bar and club owners can relate a litany of hardships visited upon them by city officials - hardships that have created a hostile environment for nightlife in Atlanta and sent the late-night crowd scurrying to the 'burbs, or simply staying home with their PlayStation2s.

"It seems like all the city wants in Buckhead are steak houses and lobster bars; they want to get rid of clubs," says David Laws, whose Mike 'N Angelo's on East Paces Ferry has been a Buckhead mainstay for 17 years. Like many bar owners, he says his revenues plunged due to the earlier closing time.

As a result, a number of bar operators are looking at pulling up stakes and moving OTP. Others have already made the jump, finding a ready market among suburbanites who don't feel like battling traffic and scrounging for parking to knock back a martini only to come home an hour earlier.

Of course, there are also plenty of urban businesses sticking it out - and even thriving. Think Buckhead's Tongue & Groove or MJQ in Virginia-Highland. These fortunate ones are adapting to changing times, shifting tastes and recent nightlife migration patterns that have turned Crescent Avenue into the new Pharr Road and anointed East Andrews Drive as one of the city's hottest clubbing destinations.

But even the survivors are resentful of the city's burgeoning after-hours scene, a loose network of speakeasies and house parties - mostly on Atlanta's west side - that start kicking once legit clubs have begrudgingly locked their doors.

Adding to the atmosphere of fear and loathing is the lingering suspicion - a conspiracy theory, really - that city officials have made life difficult for nightclubs in order to drive business to its own longtime fiscal albatross, Underground Atlanta.

But more of that in a moment.

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

"In the last year," explains Atkins Park owner Warren Bruno, "the city has tripled our water bill; installed parking meters, which has hurt our lunch business; created resident-only parking on the nearby streets, which cuts into our dinner; raised the sales tax; and moved back the closing time. So they've killed me on lunch, dinner and late-night.

"If it was just any one thing, we could deal with it," he adds, "but they keep finding new ways to chip away at our business."

While no one argues that water rates and sales taxes are specifically aimed at bars, Bruno is convinced certain City Council members have gone after the city's nightlife to score political points.

"I've been in business for 30 years, and in just the last year they've dropped three or four major regulations without blinking," says Bruno, former owner of the prominent Buckhead watering hole Aunt Charley's and Underground's Groundhog Tavern. "Some of the stuff they're throwing up now are just election-year laws."

The stuff he's talking about includes an aborted attempt at a citywide smoking ban, steep hikes in liquor license renewal fees, overzealous fire-code inspections and, most significantly, a new parking ordinance that could have a devastating effect on the Buckhead and Midtown bar districts.

Adding to the piling-on is the city's stand-alone License Review Board, which recently stopped giving warnings to bars that miss the deadline for renewing an alcohol license. The board's new policy is to slap a club with the maximum fine, $1,000, for a first offense, and impose a crippling 30-day license suspension for a second violation. Says LRB Chairman Barney Simms, "We now operate more by-the-book."

Bruno, who himself served a two-year term on the board, says the LRB's stricter stance has further stifled Atlanta nightlife. "They don't really have a pro-business perspective," he says.

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