A man rides a bicycle near MJ's Event Center Tuesday afternoon. City Commissioners are considering further regulating event centers.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Elma Vangure had no intention of being "generalized" by the local media and by members of the Albany City Commission, so she engaged in a one-woman mission to tell her side of the story.
"Out of nowhere, I've got people calling me and telling me my business is on the front page of The Albany Herald and on both of the local TV stations," said Vangure, who with her husband, Warren Vangure Jr., owns and operates MJ's Event Center at 2401 Dawson Road. "I feel I've been generalized, put into one basket with every event center in town, and nobody has asked me anything.
"In your paper there's a photo of my family's business, and if you just glance at the story you see the word 'alcohol' jump out at you. The same thing with the TV news. Now people are starting to equate my business with illegal activities, and that's not us. We run a family business that allows us to, among other things, provide a safe environment for teenagers to get out and have a fun time without their parents worrying about what they're into."
MJ's Event Center was used by media outlets to illustrate the City Commission's attempts to more closely regulate such facilities in the city after community and law enforcement complaints about activities at some such centers filtered down to commissioners. Code Enforcement Director Mike Tilson worked with City Attorney Nathan Davis, and officials with the Albany Police Department, the Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit and the city/county Planning department to develop a proposal to address the concerns, which included alcohol-related issues, noise and litter nuisances, and traffic problems.
Tilson, who did not single out MJ's for specific complaints, said some event centers skirt the city's alcohol ordinances by utilizing alcohol licenses of caterers or by designating events as "private parties," which are not subject to the city ordinance that reads, in part, "It shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, distribute, or to sell or offer for sale at wholesale or retail in the city any alcoholic beverage without having the required alcohol beverage license."
"That's why we're doing this," Tilson said of calls to more strictly regulate event centers. "This came up around 2011, and we've been kicking it around since then. We're trying to come up with a way to address the concerns that have been presented to commissioners."
The Vangures, whose son M.J. is a point guard on the Westover High School basketball team and is their business's namesake, say MJ's has been included as part of a problem when none exists there.
"We had a teen dance planned last night," Elma Vangure said. "After the TV stations put pictures of our business up on the 5 o'clock news, we didn't have anyone show up. That's never happened before."
Warren Vangure picks up on his wife's comment.
"Now, today, after the story is in the paper, I've got all kinds of people wanting to know about the negative publicity at our business," he said. "These are potential customers."
Elma Vangure addressed each of the issues mentioned by commissioners in The Herald's coverage of the City Commission meeting:
- Underage consumption. "That's not us. We don't let kids bring anything into our business, and then we walk out with them when their parents come to pick them up. We want parents to know our place is safe."
- Illegal sale of alcohol. "We abide by the rules. We don't sell alcohol at any events -- for adults or teenagers, and we never allow those groups to mix -- and if there are parties where alcohol is available, we make sure that our security personnel checks IDs. And our security people are Albany Police Department officers."
- Litter. "We check the parking lot for trash after every event. I'm not saying anything bad about other businesses, but you have to remember that Charley B's (nightclub) and Uptown Dance Studio are right beside us. They both have late-night events."
- Traffic congestion: "That's not us either. We might have 100 people at a typical event. I don't think we generate any kind of traffic issues."
Warren Vangure said he's planning a medical retirement from Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany soon, and the event center offers him and Elma a way to provide a safe environment for kids like his son.
"We opened this business thinking we were providing a service to the community," he said. "We do more than is required by the city to paint a positive picture. We figured if you do that, you attract positive people. Seeing all this negativity surrounding our business is embarrassing and it's disheartening. We've worked tooth and nail to provide something positive for this community."
Elma Vangure said she'd understand city officials' concerns a little better if any had bothered to visit MJ's.
"Nobody from the city has contacted us. Nobody from the city has been by our place," she said. "We even had an open house and invited the community, but no one from the city came.
"We're trying to run a reputable business that we think will impact this community in a positive way. We've followed the rules, done the things Chief (Nathaniel) Norman (with Code Enforcement) said we could do. We try to teach our son to do the right kind of things so that he can in turn have a positive influence on his friends. If city officials have issues (with event centers), we encourage them to come and see what we do, not bunch us in with other businesses they might have problems with."