Post-21, much downtown business remains steady

BY KATIE HEINE | MAY 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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The window of Matthew Theobald's family business, the Soap Opera hasn't been broken in approximately a year — about as long as the 21-ordinance has been in effect.

That may be a record.

Despite dire predictions during the 21-ordinance debates that it would cause major changes to all aspects of downtown's economy, numerous establishments in that area say their sales have stayed constant, though business may have shifted hours or location.

As a business nestled among many popular bars, Theobald said, the biggest effect the ordinance had on his business was an aesthetic one.

Before the ordinance, he washed his entryway — often covered in vomit and urine — at least once a week, he said. But a lot has changed in a year.

"I've had to clean the entry out maybe three times in the past year," he said.

But the consistency has apparently not extended to the bars. Four downtown bars have closed since the 21-ordinance went into effect in June 2010.

Meanwhile, the owner of one local liquor store said the anticipated increase in sales as people avoided downtown hasn't been realized.

Jason Caylor, the owner of Liquor Downtown, 315 S. Gilbert S., said he thought liquor stores would see a "backlash" of people opting to buy liquor and stay home. But the sales weren't as dramatic as he predicted.

"We've seen some slight increases, but nothing like we thought," he said.

Perhaps the biggest change for his business has been police officers monitoring customers leaving the establishment, Caylor said.

While Iowa City officials said they don't routinely "set up" outside liquor stores, Caylor said he sees police "reverse IDing" customers outside his business — or checking customer's IDs after they purchase alcohol to ensure they are of age.

While no citations have been issued outside his establishment yet, the change is somewhat "aggravating," Caylor said

"It's like Big Brother is there," he said.

Iowa City police Sgt. Dave Droll said liquor store checks are treated similarly to bars.

"We don't sit there and [check everyone]," Droll said. "But anytime someone appears to be under 21 and carrying alcohol, we can check."

The ordinance also caused owners of some food establishments to worry about their businesses. But sales have remained steady, several said.

Prior to the ordinance, most of the business occurred after the bars closed, said Scott Norris, who manages Mesa Pizza, 114 E. Washington St. But now, 10 p.m. on a Friday night is Mesa's busiest time, he said.

"It's basically a redistribution of the same people," Norris said.

But Pita Pit, 113 Iowa Ave., is one fast-food business that has taken a hit in the past year. Owner Todd Morrow said his business thrived on students craving late-night food, but today, that crowd has decreased.

A year ago, Pita Pit earned about $1,500 to $1,800 a week, he said. Today, though, weekly profits average about $800, he said.

Morrow anticipated a "backlash of students not wanting to come downtown," and he said he will likely start closing earlier on week nights to save money.

"There's really no reason to be open," he said.

Weekend transportation has also shifted. Instead of heading downtown, many calls for taxis are for house parties away from the bars, said Siham Elneil, Black and White Cab owner and driver.

"We don't do a lot of business downtown," Elneil said.

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