Brian Townsend, the St. Charles City Administrator, recently blogged about the rich "social, cultural, and economic vibrancy" of downtown St. Charles, and he has also written about the "approximately $1 million in sales and alcoholic beverage taxes" that flow to the City from all the bars, taverns, and restaurants in town. In response, I'd like to take the opportunity here to write about the 'flip-side' of that rich social and cultural nightlife that has come to define the reality of downtown St. Charles. Specifically, the kind of vibrant nightlife that showed up early Sunday morning, March 18, at roughly 12:20 a.m., a mere 200 feet from where my wife, my children, and I sleep.
According to the Police report, the driver of the car pictured allegedly patronized one of downtown St. Charles' "high-quality eating & drinking establishments," drank enough to get legally drunk, and then proceeded to drive, too fast for conditions, down a residential street, with the photo above being the end result of this apparent chain of poor decisions. It is an absolute miracle that members of my neighborhood, the passenger, or the driver of this vehicle were not killed or seriously hurt in this incident.
The total costs of this incident for the City? I will not detail all my type-A calculations here, but my rough estimate for the direct costs to the City to respond to this incident comes out to slightly more than $550. The total income to the City from these two patrons of our downtown's "high-quality eating & drinking establishments?" I peg that at somewhere between sixty-four cents and one dollar.
Far, far, far more offensive than cost to the City to respond to this incident is the simple fact that our City government, for reasons completely beyond my comprehension, is apparently fully committed to the proposition that it is somehow a good idea to invite all of Kane County to downtown St. Charles to drink. That a certain percentage of those patrons get drunk, start fights, assault our Police Officers, vomit on our sidewalks, urinate in public, have sex in public, disturb the peace, and then, for a final insult as they leave our town, drive on our roads, drunk, should be no surprise to us.
Incidents like the one pictured above are now apparently just the cost of doing business, despite the fact that they are a clear and present danger not only to every resident of my neighborhood, but to every St. Charles resident who drives, bicycles, or walks in this City. Better hope and pray that the next drunk driver who has taken in a bit too much of our rich social, cultural, and economic vibrancy does not come across the path of you or your child/spouse/sibling/parent.
Mr. Townsend may like to think that St. Charles has become the "dining and entertainment hub in the Tri-Cities, if not all of Kane County," but the reality of the situation is revealed regularly in my neighborhood under the harsh glare of Police lights: we have become little more than the Rush Street of Kane County, and we have shiny new anti-public urination and drunken brawling ordinances to prove it. If our grand plans for rebuilding our downtown and getting more residents to live and shop there is going to work, and work well for all of us, downtown must be more than a collection of drunks every weekend. The big problem with buying into the Rush Street model for economic vibrancy is that while lots of folks may want to visit and have a good time there, nobody actually wants to live there because of what folks do after having a good time. A downtown economic model based on the sale of alcohol is a dead-end that will ultimately take the surrounding historic neighborhoods down with it in a vicious cycle of disinvestment, decay and neglect.
If we are going to embrace the Rush Street model as 'good enough' for our town, we would all do well to first heed the advice of Ellsworth Toohey of the Fountainhead: "I play the stock market of the spirit and I sell short." That way, we will never be surprised by the actions of the people from whom the City is getting alcohol tax revenue, nor by how low we will collectively let ourselves sink in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Personally, I don't want to sink that low, and I hope that our leadership wakes up before we do. The path we are on is unsustainable. We must do better than this. We need leadership that will hold out for developments that will pay long-term dividends, not just short-term gains. We need leadership with real vision.