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21-only worked for Illinois college town

BY MITCHELL SCHMIDT | APRIL 05, 2010 7:30 AM

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Banning underage people from bars was the wisest decision officials in a university town in Illinois made in curbing underage drinking, they say — though it took them a few years to realize it.

In 1994, the City Council in Charleston, Ill., home of Eastern Illinois University, implemented an ordinance restricting anyone under 21 from entering the bars.

The Iowa City City Council is set to hold its final vote Tuesday on a similar ordinance — an approach Charleston officials say works.

“I think it was a very good decision,” said Charleston City Councilor Larry Rennels, who was on the city’s Liquor Advisory Commission at the time. “[The ordinance] has been something we are very pleased that we did.”

In a recent letter to Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, former Charleston Mayor Roscoe Cougill highlighted the city’s success with the change:

• Enrollment at Eastern Illinois University increased and lost its standing on Playboy’s party-school list
• Sales-tax revenue and property values increased
• The number of alcohol alternatives, including live entertainment, increased
• Alcohol-related weekend emergency room visits saw a “dramatic” decrease

“We are happy with our decision and are constantly reminded by students’ parents that they are as well,” Cougill wrote in the letter in early March.

Hayek said Iowa City councilors received “correspondence from all corners of the community,” but Cougill’s letter was “unique.”

Cougill noted ticketing underage drinkers and suspending or revoking bars’ liquor licenses wasn’t solving the problem. Some city councilors here have cited similar unsuccessful initiatives in their push for the 21-ordinance.

But change didn’t happen over night, said Charleston police Lt. Brad Oyer, who was with the local sheriff’s department when the ordinance passed.

“There was a period where people were very unhappy,” he said. “It took some time to go through that.”

After the council approved the ordinance on a 3-2 vote, some bar owners didn’t take it seriously until officials began conducting compliance checks.

“Then they realized we meant what we said,” Rennels said.

Councilor Jim Dunn said Charleston had a period of “adjustment” that lasted between three and five years. During that time, he said, students who enrolled at Eastern Illinois University for its party reputation were replaced by those who didn’t.

Dunn, who voted against the ordinance but now thinks it was the right move, said he felt the change in bar-entry age would have negative repercussions, including increasing the number of house parties.

Officials said the number of parties initially increased but then fell as police were better able to monitor areas outside downtown. Dunn said a keg-registration law, similar to the one passed in Iowa in 2007, also helped curb the problem.

Mike Knoop, who owned a bar in Charleston when the ordinance passed, said business owners had to adapt to the change. He said his bar saw lower sales and tried to cater to older patrons.

“You just have to shift gears,” said Knoop, who said he still feels the ordinance was the wrong decision.

Sallie Cougill, the former mayor’s wife, said they lived on a “party route” and that the drinking scene had become “unbelievable.”

“As a citizen, I can tell you [the ordinance] has done wonders for our town,” she said.


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