By Caroline Davenport
THE CAROLINA REPORTER & NEWS
It has been almost two weeks since gunfire erupted in the Vista, but the random shooting that unfolded Sept. 17 hasn’t had a significant impact on businesses and visitors to Columbia’s popular entertainment district, officials said.
The Vista is known for its entertaining and enjoyable nightlife, but things took a turn early on Sept. 17 as the downtown Columbia area quickly turned into a crime scene.
Columbia police responded to a call placed around 2:15 a.m. regarding shots fired at Empire Supper Club, located on the corner of Park and Lady streets. According to police, two groups of men were apparently shooting at each other from their cars, but stray bullets hit victims along Park Street and across Gervais. Four men and four women were injured in the shooting, including one of the alleged perpetrators.
Four suspects, all Newberry County residents, are in custody and will face multiple charges, Columbia police said. Three remain in jail and a fourth suspect was released on bond.
“It’s just the type of thing we just don’t want. It’s tragic that something like innocent people getting shot by undesirable type of people,” said Bobby Gillespie, operations supervisor for the Vista Guild, the nonprofit organization that represents the cultural district's businesses.
Business owners said last week they don’t believe business will decline this weekend or in the future because of it. They attribute the somewhat noticeable absence of customers Saturday night, hours after the shooting, to USC’s first home game at Williams-Brice stadium.
This kind of unexpected random violence raises some concerns for Vista employees.
“It does make everyone here a little nervous at times to walk to our cars after we close, because we do close later at night on the weekends,” said Courtney Starling, assistant manager at Cupcake Down South on Lincoln Street. “Leaving after 10 p.m. when we close and having to walk to our cars and being worried about that happening somewhere near us is a little concerning.”
She said the employees there already take precautions when closing and look out for each other at night.
“I don’t think too much will change as far as that goes, and hopefully the city will be keeping a watch down here,” Starling said.
Gillespie said it was business as usual Saturday night and into the weekend after the shooting and he hasn't seen a decline since. Patrons seemed to be “more concerned with the way our football team performed.”
On Wednesday, he remained enthusiastic about the Vista's vibe.
"I can't speak for after 2 a.m. but as far as lunch and dinner hours, everything is totally normal," Gillespie said.
"We’ve got a whole lot of great businesses down here; it’s a fun place to be,” he said last week. “We attract people from all over, and hopefully this is a very isolated event that won’t happen again.”
Empire Supper Club was shut down shortly after the incident Saturday and deemed a “public nuisance” by the Columbia Police Department.
The owner of the club, Joe Stovall, who objected to the closing, says his business was unjustly shut down. He doesn’t think the actions that unfolded Saturday should be associated with the reputation of his business.
“My efforts to run a respectable business shouldn’t be cut short because of the actions of criminals,” Stovall wrote in a letter addressed to Columbia police chief Skip Holbrook.
Stovall acknowledges in his letter that gun violence and gang activity could happen at any establishment. He is concerned that other businesses would not face the same consequences if a similar situation occurred.
“I do feel like this was very swift and unfair… I get the monumental event that happened, but- to blame the business for crime in the city?” he said.
He met with police last week to explain his side of the events and fight the decision to revoke his business license. He plans to work with police and city officials to discuss changes that can be made to improve safety if the business is allowed to reopen.
A club at the same Park Street location, the Lucky 13, was also shut down in 2014 after a shooting. Stovall did not own that club.