For at least a year now, a tension has been tearing at the heart of St. Charles’ downtown: Excessive drinking has gotten out of hand, spilling violence, unwelcome advances and human filth — vomit and urine — onto the community’s streets and sidewalks.
Some will blow the problem out of proportion. I know some believe I have simply by writing about it.
Others will understate the issue.
But the fact remains that is does happen, businesses and residents are upset, a police officer was assaulted last summer responding to one incident, and women have been followed by leering drunks hoping for romance.
If the latter phrase sounds a little harsh, consider the women who have filed police reports on incidents like that. They were upset, and I can’t blame them.
The issue bears scrutiny, but it also demands honest self-examination among all the key players — from residents and businesses to the bars and restaurants to the people the residents of St. Charles have elected to represent them.
To this point, the city has pressured bar and tavern owners to remedy the problem, and by many accounts, they have made strides doing so.
Still, that progress has come under duress, with the mayor and City Council talking about cutting back bar hours from a 2 a.m. closing time to 1 a.m. Some owners have told the council that’s one of their most lucrative hours, so the threat carries financial repercussions. Such threats often breed resentment.
But the City Council’s threat in August to do just that was borne of exasperation. That was very apparent in the discussion during the meeting at which Mayor Donald DeWitte introduced the proposal. What the City Council expressed at that time was a frustration with not only the problem, but with a lack of responsiveness by the downtown bars and taverns.
The city puts much of the blame on the over-service of alcoholic beverages to patrons. Over-service generally has been defined as continuing to serve alcohol to people who have had too much to drink.
The tavern and bar owners have pointed out that patrons have some culpability in this matter as well.
So does the City Council.
It is a thorny issue by all accounts.
Facing the Issue
Some take a hard-line stance against the bars, as is evident in some of the comment threads on the stories I’ve written on the topic. Certainly something needs to be done to rein in the problem. I can’t imagine going to open a business in the morning only to find the threshold covered in vomit or the door sprayed with urine. I find it difficult to believe that anyone is fond of the idea of being out on the streets at night and finding themselves stumbling upon a drunk passed out on a sidewalk or in a parking lot, being nearly run over by someone who no longer can walk straight or having to dodge potential “land mines” left behind by someone whose thrown up after too much libation.
And, really, who wants to turn a corner and find someone peeing on the side of a building?
Such encounters reflect poorly on the city’s entertainment district, and a lousy reputation is difficult to overcome; ultimately, it can chase away prospective visitors, and that’s bad for business, whether you’re running a bar or governing a city.
Still, bar and tavern owners are under the gun and might make some legitimate arguments about being singled out on this issue.
One is the personal accountability issue as it relates to their patrons, the ones who choose to drink too much.
It also is understandable that the downtown drinking establishments might feel resentment. No one likes to do anything under duress.
Acknowledging the Efforts
Yet, even if there is some resentment, the tavern owners deserve credit for working with Police Chief Jim Lamkin to find some solutions. They formed the St. Charles Tavern Association to act as a liaison with with the city, to set up standards that have the potential to help them establish the best practices possible for dealing with the issue. They’re also policing themselves and calling in the police before situations get out of hand. And they’ve instituted a “ban list,” which gets back to personal responsibility. Troublemakers who are banned three times from a downtown establishment get their names put on the list and forfeit the privilege of entering any downtown bar or tavern.
In that same vein, the city has been responsive. At Chief Lamkin’s urging, the City Council increased the fines for public intoxication, fighting and urination. That puts the onus back on the drinker to control his or her own behavior or face the consequences.
Chief Lamkin has praised the St. Charles Tavern Association’s efforts before a skeptical City Council that wants to see statistical data to back up Lamkin’s assertion that alcohol-related problems in the downtown have eased. Lamkin told the council recently that while the number of calls to police about such issues are about the same, it’s partly because the number of calls coming from bars is up, and that those calls are coming in before “a situation” escalates into a problem.
The Unanswered Question
Still, it seems to me that the City Council has one more point to consider that might help resolve the issue — ay least in the longer term. It is a factor that has yet to be seriously explored in this debate, at least not since I came on board at St. Charles Patch last summer, and it centers on one question.
How many liquor licenses does the city of St. Charles really need to issue?
It’s a question the council has heard before. My predecessor, Nick Swedberg, wrote about it a year ago when the council, while examining The Alibi’s application for a liquor license, wondered if St. Charles had too many bars. Some aldermen have uttered similar sentiments, sometimes under their breath, each time the council has reviewed a liquor license or related issues.
That poses what for them might be a rather uncomfortable question:
Has the same City Council that has accused bars of overserving by doling out too many drinks to patrons in fact doled out too many liquor licenses?
It’s a fair question to ask heading into the April 9 election, and more relevant if the answer is yes.
The city has options for restricting the number of licenses and doing so without taking away existing ones. Setting a baseline that, if needed, could be lowered as attrition allows in coming years is one possibility.
I’m sure there are many more alternatives out there as well, but discussing them in depth at this point is meritless until the council answers its own question.
Local Voices posts represent the opinion of the author and do not reflect the view or opinion of Patch Media or its editors.