SLO studies bar 'problem'

Downtown bar owners are on alert



TOTALLY SMASHED :  Bar owners were offered a first glimpse at a city-funded study that links their establishments to alcohol-related “problems” in downtown SLO. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TOTALLY SMASHED : Bar owners were offered a first glimpse at a city-funded study that links their establishments to alcohol-related “problems” in downtown SLO.
Owners of the 10 most popular downtown San Luis Obispo bars were caught off guard in early October when the city’s police department held a pair of meetings offering a sneak peek at a city-funded study on the relationship between licensed liquor establishments and police activity in the downtown area.


While the meetings were meant to give the business owners an early look so they wouldn’t be surprised when the results were later released, the news was received with just that: surprise.


According to SLO Police Chief Deborah Linden, two meetings happened on Oct. 8. The first, held at 7:30 a.m. in the Chamber of Commerce building, was directed toward chamber members. The second was held at the SLO Police Department that afternoon, aimed at local business owners who would be affected by any regulatory changes, namely bar owners.


“The purpose of the meetings was just to give [the chamber and local business owners] a heads up because we didn’t want them to be surprised,” Linden told New Times. “We wanted them to know what was coming and to encourage them to be involved in any public discussion. The whole purpose is for public engagement, to get the word out.”


As many bar owners predicted, the report—which was released the following week on Oct. 14—found that about 60 percent of alcohol- and drug-related police events (which the report labels AODs) occur between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.


The report also found that alcohol outlets—basically bars, restaurants, pubs, and the like—were more likely to generate public drunkenness, disturbances, and DUIs. Ultimately, it concluded that AOD arrests at the outlets are actually driving police activity and suggested that efforts to combat the apparent problems should focus on controlling “drinking from the start of the patron’s experience rather than after the drinking becomes problematic.”


Specific recommendations include the city establishing standard conditions for bar operation, educating bar owners regarding best practices in alcohol service so they don’t have to rely as heavily on law enforcement, and imposing a fee on such businesses to offset the costs for more “education and oversight services.”


Though the police chief wouldn’t comment further on the study before its presentation to the city council on Oct. 20, the report lists the consultant as Dr. Fried Wittman, a research specialist from U.C. Berkeley.


The report didn’t disclose how much the study cost taxpayers or how “significant” a problem San Luis Obispo faces is in comparison to cities with similar populations and demographics.


In all, the report focused only on 2008, examining 21,643 “police events” in SLO. While findings revealed 65 percent of arrests made downtown were alcohol or drug related, the report also states that only 15 percent of all such events citywide happened downtown.


So who exactly is pushing for an increase in regulatory action? According to David Garth, president of the SLO Chamber of Commerce, a number of downtown non-liquor business owners have been putting pressure on the city council.


“There have been a number of complaints by non-bar business owners because of property damage and vandalism, what they see as on the part of bar patrons,” Garth said. “These retailers feel they’re getting the brunt of it.”


One such property owner reportedly made a statement at the first meeting, saying he regularly complains to the council about finding urine and vomit on his property. He claimed that he’s made up to $2,000 in repairs for damage he blamed on students drinking downtown.


Despite the fact that Linden reportedly assured bar owners that the issue isn’t a matter of “police versus the bars,” many establishment owners who attended the meeting couldn’t help but take it that way.


“It was a huge surprise. I felt really betrayed,” one bar owner told New Times on condition of anonymity. “Everybody has worked really hard to make downtown what it is today. If you look at the area 10 years ago, we had horrible fights and things, but we all came together to work with Linden and [Capt. Ian] Parkinson, and it’s gotten so much better.


“We never wanted it to be us versus the PD, but for all of us who have been working so hard to clean up the downtown, it’s like a giant slap in the face,” he added. “Why couldn’t they have told us there was this big problem before they spent all this money on the study?”


A number of other bar owners also reiterated the notion that they don’t buy into the “us versus them” mentality and that they’ve always worked alongside the police department to keep downtown respectable, even at great expense to their businesses. They cited their willingness to drop all promotions of Mardi Gras after the city asked for help in shutting down festivities in 2005.


Bill Hales and Ron Meier, co-owners of a number of downtown establishments—including Mother’s Tavern and McCarthy’s—told New Times that while they don’t feel the police department is out to get them, they do take issue with the study.


“We’re worried that this study will be used as a tool to fuel some agenda, because you can make stats look however you want,” Hales said. “The police tell us to call them if there’s ever any problems, and now it seems as if these calls are going to be used against us. We’re being told that this is only the beginning of the process, but it’s not the beginning—it’s already begun, and without including us. We’re worried that, for whatever reason, an important step has been skipped.”


Another question raised was whether the downtown liquor establishments are getting swept up in a concerted police effort to combat alcohol-related criminal and health issues in response to several high-profile incidents involving college students and underage drinking in private residences.


Given an already heavily regulated industry—with scrutiny from the city, the police, the fire department, code enforcers, and state Alcoholic Beverage Control licensing—and the economic downturn, bar owners are loathing more regulation and fees that could come because of this study. And they’re wondering where it will end.


Contact Staff Writer Matt Fountain at [email protected].


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