Tavern Guild director says most bars happy with the ban, but Illusions owner says it is forcing him to sell
Gay bars in Dallas get high marks for compliance with the city’s one-year-old indoor smoking ban.
Since the ban took effect April 10, 2009, inspectors have issued a total of 163 citations citywide, records show. Of those, only six were issued at gay bars, including four at a single location.
Michael Doughman, executive director of the Dallas Tavern Guild, credited both management and customers for the disproportionately low number of citations. The Tavern Guild is made up of 22 gay and lesbian bars in the city.
Doughman also said he doesn’t believe the ban has hurt business, contrary to what opponents predicted.
"The general consensus across the board for the majority is that it’s been a good thing, and they’re happy with the change," Doughman said this week. "In hindsight, if there has been any impact at all, it’s been marginal compared to the amount of fuss that was made going into it. It’s really been a very, very, very small bump in the road."
By the time the ordinance took effect, Doughman said, all Tavern Guild members had patios to accommodate smoking.
Some patios aren’t covered, which can be an issue in inclement weather. But Doughman said even owners of smaller bars with a large percentage of customers who are smokers haven’t complained.
"I think a lot of people are saying if there was any decline in business, they should probably attribute it more to the economy than the smoking ban," Doughman said.
One negative side effect of the ban has been more cigarette butts on sidewalks in the gay entertainment district, but Doughman called this a "lesser evil" for bar owners.
"Their bars are cleaner, they smell better, and they’re easier to keep clean," he said. "Some of the bigger clubs, it took them months to get the residual smell out of their bars, but it’s pretty much gone everywhere now, and it’s a noticeable difference.
"Some of the bartenders that I’ve talked to, even people who do smoke on their own time, will say that it’s a better environment to work in."
The only Tavern Guild member who’s publicly opposed the ban, Illusions owner Eddie Bonner, said this week he now plans to sell the bar on Maple Avenue. Bonner claims business has been down as much as 40 percent since the ban took effect.
"I guess it could be because of the economy. There could be other factors involved, but my opinion is, because it happened at the same time and it stayed that way, that it was because of the smoking ordinance," Bonner said. "I’ve had to pay some of the bills myself out of my personal funds to keep it [the bar] going, hoping it would turn around and we would start seeing that influx of nonsmokers that everybody predicted. I can’t afford to keep doing that, and I don’t have the time to look to do a makeover of the bar to try to bring people in."
At one point before the ordinance took effect, Bonner told Dallas Voice he didn’t intend to enforce it at Illusions. But he eventually constructed a patio out front, and records show no citations have been issued at the bar.
Each violation of the ordinance carries a $200 fine, and citations can go to both patrons and managers.
Four of the six citations issued at gay bars went to managers at the Tin Room, which isn’t a member of the Tavern Guild. One citation went to a patron at J.R’s, and one went to a manager at TMC.
Asked about the citations at the Tin Room, owner Marty Hershner said the bar has complied with the ordinance, but someone’s been maliciously calling in complaints to the city’s 311 line.
"There’s somebody that has it out for me, and in this business that’s the way it goes," Hershner said.
"They did not find anyone smoking on any complaint," Hershner added. "They just wrote the ticket because there was an ashtray in the building."
The ordinance prohibits ashtrays in areas where smoking is prohibited.
Chauncy Williams, sanitarian supervisor for the city, said enforcement is largely complaint-based. City inspectors don’t respond immediately to complaints but compile lists and visit multiple bars during nighttime "blitzes," Williams said.
City inspectors have issued far more citations under the new ordinance than they did in the first year of Dallas’ previous smoking ban, which applied only to restaurants and took effect in 2003.
But records show they issued most of the citations in the first few months after the new ordinance took effect last April. The city has conducted a total of seven blitzes, with the most recent one coming in early November.
"Most facilities have gotten the word that we’re enforcing it, and therefore they’re being compliant," Williams said.
Jimmy Martin, the city’s assistant director of code compliance, said police officers, in addition to code inspectors, may soon begin writing smoking tickets.
"Basically they’ve inquired about whether or not there’s any prohibition from them enforcing it, and there’s not," Martin said.
Williams, Martin and other city officials said they feel the first year of the ordinance has gone smoothly, especially given the controversy leading up to it.
Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, a driving force behind the ban, agreed.
"During the process of expanding our smoking ordinance, we clearly heard some very loud concerns," Leppert said in a statement this week. "And by getting that feedback early on, we were able to address many of those concerns and offer options to accommodate smokers. I think the implementation has gone so quietly and smoothly in large part due to this. Dallas is a healthier city."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 9, 2010.