News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, May 2, 2013
AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Jack Hostettler loves downtown Aiken.
"A lot of great things down here," he said, while strolling down The Alley. "And this is the heart of Aiken."
He says the blood flowing through that heart is small businesses. Hostettler manages one nearby.
"What is downtown like if you've never been to downtown Aiken before?" asked News 12 reporter Chad Mills.
"It's quite charming," Hostettler said. "Very charming, actually. Very pleasant. Very welcoming. Very homely."
But just a few weeks ago, Hostettler says that wasn't the case. On March 28, a middle school party disturbed what's normally a quiet, tranquil downtown.
"Downtown Aiken! I just saw a little kid flick somebody else off! This is horrible! What is this!" says Hostettler in an iPhone video that he recorded during the incident.
The 40-minute video, shot around 11 p.m. that night, shows a large group of juveniles on the streets around the Municipal Building in Aiken. At one point, some flash gang signs. Others can be heard cussing in the streets. Yelling dramatically, an adult, who isn't seen, talks about a fight.
Hostettler says after the young men and women danced inside a nearby building, many of them took to the streets.
"One thing led to another. Words were exchanged. From words then became physical contact. Physical contact digressed to violence and negativity -- a bunch of negativity," he said.
Hostettler says even though many of his customers left, others were afraid to leave his business.
"They done ran our customers away," he says in the video. "They didn't allow us to make money."
He says what's more frustrating is that this party started in the Municipal Building, Aiken's City Hall. City Council meets upstairs, but downstairs, a conference room is frequently rented for meetings, wedding receptions and parties.
That night, the downstairs conference room was rented from the City of Aiken for six hours for only $350.
An Aiken Department of Public Safety report reads, "Dispatch received multiple calls in reference to fights." According to the report, one juvenile ran from a victim with a black collapsible baton but was arrested. Another fight broke out nearby on Newberry Street.
"Several subjects assaulted a subject in the parking lot behind Pizza Joint," it reads.
Hostettler says only when the police arrived did The Alley clear up.
"It looked like they were running from the police," he said.
News 12 sifted through two year's worth of Municipal Building Conference Center rental agreements. News 12 found out that the group who rented City Hall on March 28 also did on Dec. 27 of last year. A damage report from that event says, "two fire alarms were pulled," "called public safety and fire department," "fight broke out," "party stopped."
An attached incident report says police responded to fights because of that event, too.
"Reporting officer responded on foot and upon arrival observed approximately 100 juveniles standing on the side walk and in the roadway in front of City Hall," the report reads.
It says one juvenile ran from the officer, a foot chase occurred, and then he was pushed to the ground and handcuffed.
"Once on his feet, the subject began yelling profanities at the [reporting officer] and towards the crowd," it says.
News 12 showed the reports and the video to newly-elected City Councilman Philip Merry.
"The of the City of Aiken should not be paying to provide extra police, because a few bad apples have spoiled the whole thing for everybody else," he said.
"We brought this to your attention. Is it troubling?" Mills asked.
"Absolutely," Merry said. "To know that it's happened more than once, with the same group of people, tells me that we haven't addressed it yet, and I think we need to."
On the rental agreement for the Dec. 27 party, the city placed a sticky note on top of it.
"This is the one with the problem," it reads.
However, since that party, there was party on March 28 (which police were also called out to) and another middle school party has been booked for June 6, too.
"We've had that building for rent for, gosh, years, and just by shear numbers, unfortunately, there are some folks who don't know how to conduct themselves in the downtown, and we've dealt with those on a case-by-case basis," said City Manager Richard Pearce, who says he didn't know about the disturbances until News 12 questioned him about them.
News 12 asked Pearce if the middle schoolers will be permitted to party at City Hall again. News 12 never got a "yes" or "no" answer, but Pearce did say that the city will look into the incidents.
According to the rental agreements, Alisha Barnes sets up the parties. She says she's not affiliated with the school district in any way, but middle schoolers and some high schoolers attend the events. She says her daughter, who attends the University of South Carolina, owns the business that sets up the parties, FT^2 Productions. She says her other daughter help promote the events locally.
"To get right to it, did any of these parties get out of hand?" Mills said.
"No, the actually party did not get out of hand," Barnes said. "We've had 22 parties."
Barnes told News 12 that the fights did not happen inside the doors of City Hall. She says they happened outside where she has no control.
"I can't stop kids from cursing, and if they leave off the premises, I ask them not to leave, and we try to secure them there, and if they leave, I can't be responsible for them if they leave without my permission," she said. "It's a safe environment, a fun environment. There's not really anything for kids to around here."
Barnes says she hired security, and she says the fire alarms weren't pulled by party-goers. She says one juvenile later told her he may have pulled one accidentally. However, after this investigation, Barnes says she's reassessing her plans to use the Municipal Building for these parties in the future.
Hostettler hopes that happens.
"I have an idea. How about stop renting out the Municipal Building. Stop running away our business!" he says in the video.
"You obviously didn't have to come and talk to us. You didn't have to take that video and post it on Facebook, but why did you? Why did you want to speak out?" News 12 asked Hostettler.
"I come to downtown Aiken often. As a patron myself of the downtown district, that's something I wouldn't want to come to. I don't want to see that. It's horrible," he says.
Meanwhile, the City of Aiken is considering plans to use taxpayer dollars to improve the City Hall's conference center. The $1.5 million project would allow around 300 people to use the meeting space at once. There were plenty of questions from council when the proposal was first discussed weeks ago. Now Councilman Merry says he has even more questions.
While the vast majority of rental agreements show events were incident-free, others listed damage. A birthday party on Jan. 20, 2012, resulted in a fight within the conference center. One party-goer was even tased by another according to an incident report. Another event on Feb. 11, 2011, resulted in a fair amount of damage to the City Hall building. A damage report says cigarettes littered the outside area, the floor inside had spills all over it, and vomit had to be cleaned up in more than one place.
"Building smelled strongly of alcohol (whole building)," the report reads.