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More downtown bars close

BY NORA HEATON | JANUARY 17, 2011 7:10 AM

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Students returning from winter break may notice some of their favorite bars are no more.

Predictions that the downtown landscape would change with a 21-ordinance seem to be coming true — several bars have closed with the new law in place, and many occurred while students were away.

Vito’s, Firewater, 808, and Jakes have all gone out of business. An Iowa City party landmark, the 3rd Base, also shut its doors; it is moving into the former Slippery Pete’s building.

In addition, Piano Lounge, Summit, and Sauce have all been slapped with recommendations for denial of liquor-license renewal, with the Iowa City City Council deferring action on each.

Leah Cohen, the owner of Bo-James, 118 E. Washington St., said she had predicted this number of establishments would close with the 21-only rule, and she believes the downtown scene has “drastically” changed.

Cohen — who was a supporter of repealing the 21-ordinance — said her bar saw several alumni on Jan. 15 from the University of Iowa class of 2007.

“They said, ‘What on earth happened to downtown Iowa City?’ ” Cohen said. “As I say, they took the booze out of New Orleans.”

City Councilor Mike Wright said he had also predicated bars would close by January after the election, though he wasn’t sure if businesses closing meant too much since many were already on “shaky” financial footing before the ordinance took effect.

“I think it’s an evolution,” he said. “There’s always an ebb and flow with businesses — we were oversaturated with bars downtown, nobody would argue with that.”

If a business folds, it can request a liquor-license refund provided three months remain of the license’s year, said City Clerk Marian Karr, noting that Vito’s, Firewater, 808, and Jakes have all applied for such refunds.

If the establishment has entered its fourth quarter of the year, its management likely won’t notify city officials. That means city records don’t necessarily see all the bar closures and officials won’t have a comprehensive list — especially as that list continues to grow.

Wright said he doesn’t like to see people lose their business, but everyone knew there would be side effects from the law.

“It’s really not a matter of sympathy,” he said. “It just is what it is.”

Wright said retail stores could replace some of the vacant bars, but Cohen said it’s hard for nonalcoholic venues to make enough revenue to cover high downtown rent prices.

For now, it seems only time will tell how downtown will fare in the future.

“I think within the year well see a lot of changes, retail changes also,” Cohen said. “I don’t think anyone can predict how long it will take to put downtown back on its feet.”


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