Safety plan is successful if it saves one life

Monday, June 29, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

City council Wednesday takes up the question of how best to manage the crowd that jams downtown during the Coors Light Festival weekend. The event must be made safe for everyone. Risking public safety is not an option. And with this year's festival only weeks away (July 24-26), it's time to make a decision.

The plan before council includes several new measures that have ticked off various people for various reasons. Close Fifth Street -- from Race to Sycamore or Broadway -- to traffic. Turn that stretch into a party zone for pedestrians. Keep the street festival alcohol-free. Let street vendors sell their wares until 1:30 a.m. Enforce the curfew laws for teen-agers.

Council will also vote on a comprehensive traffic flow plan. If things get crowded at this year's festival -- which is the expectation -- downtown streets will again be in gridlock. The plan would allow city officials to get traffic flowing again by essentially closing the core of downtown to cars.

The way I see it, council must vote "yes." The city must manage this important annual event.

A "no" vote is asking for trouble. We've had more than enough of that.

During last year's festival weekend, 97 arrests were made. Countless firecrackers were tossed into an anxious crowd. Gunfire broke out on the streets. Three people were shot. One person, Arvie Jenkins, was killed.

During the past six months, critics have had their say about the plans for changing what goes on during the festival weekend. The changes have been called restrictive. They've been likened to martial law. And they've been attacked as being racist.

They are nothing of the kind.

This is a matter of protecting public safety, not being racist, restrictive or putting festival-goers under the thumb of martial law.

Over the festival's history, the crowd has grown in size and shifted the event's focus. Ten or 15 years ago, the music at the stadium was the main event. Now, the street party is almost the weekend's focal point, drawing thousands who never set foot in the stadium. These new measures recognize that change.

Of all places, Cincinnati should be at the forefront of crowd control. We know what can happen when public officials fail to safeguard the public.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977 claimed 165 lives. The Who concert stampede at the Coliseum (now The Crown) killed 11 in 1979.

Proper planning can save events and lives.

After a riot closed Pepsi Jammin' on Main in 1996, crowd-control measures were installed to give the music festival a safe, fan-friendly atmosphere.

Who knows how many future tragedies were averted after a beating death at Riverfest in 1988 prompted city officials to ban all alcohol at the annual end-of-summer fireworks show.

City leaders are right to take these steps. To do nothing would be to shirk their responsibilities.

Heed his words

Arvie Flowers might show up at Wednesday's council meeting. He's Arvie Jenkins' dad.

He wants council to change the way the festival's crowd is controlled. "If they don't have more police and make them enforce the laws, if they don't eliminate the gridlock and the criminal element," Mr. Flowers told me, "we're going to have a worse situation than the one we had last year."

Nothing could be worse for Arvie Flowers than the loss he had in 1997.

"There is not a day someone doesn't come up to me and offer their condolences," he said.

Some days, he can talk about the loss of his son. Others, he just says "thanks" and goes about his business.

When I spoke with Mr. Flowers, he wanted to deliver a message to council. "If they can save one life with these changes, they will be worth it. Life is priceless.

"If they offered me all the money they generated at the festival last year or the life of my son, I'd know what to say. "Give me my son.' " I hope council hears what Arvie Flowers is saying. I hope critics of council's plan hear him, too.

The festival's street crowd can and should be managed. Everyone deserves to have a good, safe time.

Council has no other option but to vote "yes," and the city deserves strong support from all of us to make the festival safe.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.