San Luis Obispo city officials may soon be clamping down on bars. Responding to a city-funded report, bar owners are opposing potential new fees and regulations aimed at curbing alcohol-related issues downtown.
It was standing room only as more than 100 people packed City Hall on Oct. 20 for a presentation about how rowdy bar patrons affect the downtown area. Though it was made clear no decisions would be finalized at the meeting, the council seemed inclined to increase controls on bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
The study found that alcohol-related events at “on-sale” alcohol establishments in downtown SLO—bars/nightclubs, restaurants, and brew-pubs—present a drain on police resources and deflect services from residential areas. The 300-page report cost the city roughly $22,000 and was compiled by UC Berkeley research specialist Fried Wittman. Wittman tracked police events for the year 2008 by type of event, location, and time.
The report made eight recommendations, including better defining “restaurants,” establishing standard operating conditions for alcohol outlets citywide, implementing fees on the outlets to offset police “training and inspection” costs, and considering alcohol outlets in light of long-range development plans.
What the report did not answer, however, was whether the number of alcohol outlets or alcohol-related incidents in SLO has increased from year to year.
“It’s important to note that [the report] is only a snapshot of one year and the absence of a trend in data means its value is extremely limited,” Bill Hales, co-owner of a number of alcohol-licensed downtown businesses, said at the meeting. “The report says that there are a disproportionate amount of calls to the downtown core on any given weekend. Did we really need a $21,880 report to tell us that? Isn’t this where the general plan wanted us to be?”
At a couple of points during the public comments, Mayor Dave Romero asked the crowd not to applaud speakers.
When discussing “morphing”—what Wittman called a recent phenomenon of restaurants turning into entertainment spots at night—many late-night business owners took issue.
Sean Faries, owner of Native Lounge, said that further restrictions to distinguish between a restaurant and a bar or nightclub would limit his ability to serve food and host parties for groups that include customers under the age of 21.
Councilman Andrew Carter took Faries “to task” on the issue of morphing, arguing—as he held up an edition of New Times containing an advertisement for Native Lounge that features a woman in lingerie—that Native does not cater to families. After the meeting, Carter was heard telling Faries, “Sean, I just want you to know it’s not just you guys.”
Ben Arrona, a late-night bartender at Black Sheep Bar & Grill who spent nearly five years as a probation officer and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in criminal justice, said at the meeting that though he has witnessed drinking getting out of hand, further regulating businesses would mask the real issue, alcohol abuse, and place further strain in a tough economy.
Carter and Councilwoman Jan Marx were receptive to supporting all eight of the report’s recommendations, while Councilmen John Ashbaugh and Allen Settle showed concern over implementing fees, despite giving the go-ahead for further study.
SLO Police Chief Deborah Linden told New Times she was glad to see the public on both sides of the issue take an interest. Ron Meier, co-owner of Mother’s Tavern and others, however, told New Times he didn’t feel the concerned bar owners’ voices were considered enough.
“It was exactly what I expected,” Meier said. “The forum was not one where we could have a productive back and forth. It’s difficult to get across to the council and I think we need a better format to address each one of these recommendations specifically.”