Iowa City can’t afford to scrap downtown bars

BY ADAM SULLIVAN | JULY 30, 2009 7:11 AM

Enough is enough, Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey said this week about our city’s underage drinking problem. Bailey and other city councilors voted to deny liquor licenses to two downtown bars on Tuesday.

The City Council aims to drastically change the landscape of Iowa City, I’m convinced. The councilors envision a downtown populated by public art projects we can’t afford and expensive boutiques we won’t support. If unchecked, the council will put measures in place that will undoubtedly have a long-term negative effect on students and community members alike.

I don’t mean to be totally unsympathetic to the fight against underage drinking. Binge consumption, violence, and sexual assaults are serious problems, and the high concentration of bars certainly doesn’t help. However, before we make a push to do away with downtown’s alcohol culture, we need to come to terms with a couple inconvenient truths: bars bring in a ton of money, and our drinking culture is a major draw for students.

The most important issue is money. The biggest way bars support the community is through property taxes. Third Base Sports Bar — one of the bars with a newly denied liquor license — occupies a building with an assessed value of almost $1 million. That translates to more than $40,000 a year in property taxes, according to the Johnson County Treasurer’s Office.

And who will occupy that space if the bar is forced to close? Likely the only non-bar entity that could afford it would be the UI, which, as a nonprofit public institution, doesn’t pay any property taxes. That would mean $40,000 in lost property taxes.

Additionally, officials from the bar said they can serve hundreds of patrons nightly, especially during football season. That undoubtedly means huge amounts of sales tax for the city, county, and state. And the bar employs 40 people. If it closes, that’s 40 community members who will be without a paycheck. All that from just one bar.

Do you ever get the feeling some UI officials aren’t totally serious about addressing underage drinking? Well, why would they be? The downtown party scene is a major selling point to prospective students.

As proof, look to the Princeton Review’s recently released college ratings. The UI was ranked as the No. 12 party school in the country. If those ratings didn’t matter to high-school seniors, the Princeton Review wouldn’t garner so much attention. If the bar scene disappears, I fear enrollment — especially from out of state — will slowly wane along with it.

Put simply, we can’t afford not to have these bars. And haphazardly squelching alcohol consumption won’t change the fact that we rely so heavily on bars. It may be unfortunate, but it’s true.

Luckily, there’s hope for bars even after the council gives them the ax. They can appeal to the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, which rarely denies applications.

Still, reasonably thinking, concerned citizens need to show up in large numbers at council meetings to speak out. And, most importantly, we have to rock the polls this fall in the City Council election, replacing outdated councilors with sensible ones.

Enough is enough, City Council.

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