Iowa City's 21-ordinance faces renewed opposition

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | MAY 02, 2013 5:00 AM

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Nearly three years since its passage, opposition over Iowa City’s controversial 21-ordinance appears to be gaining legs once again, thanks to the efforts of two prominent downtown bar operators.

According to a city affidavit notarized today, Union Bar owner George Wittgraf and Martinis general manager Josh Erceg filed paperwork Monday to repeal the initiative.

The regulation, which currently prohibits underage patrons from entering the majority of bars after 10 p.m., has been contested since the Iowa City City Council voted it into effect in June 2010.

Following the original passage, the ordinance underwent a second round of consideration and was upheld in the November 2010 election.

City Clerk Marian Karr said the minimum of 2,500 registered-voters’ signatures is the required first step before being verified through Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert. She said it is required by law to verify the signatures within 20 days of the notarized date. The City Council would then vote on the matter or put it before voters. The deadline for petition questions is Aug. 29.

Partnership for Alcohol Safety’s harm-reduction-initiatives coordinator Kelly Bender said bar owners wanting to overturn the ordinance comes as no surprise. 

“… They have significant self interest in allowing people under 21 to be in their bars as long as possible,” she wrote in an email. “The fact of the matter is that there is significant evidence that public health, safety, and economic vitality downtown have improved since the 21-ordinance passed and no evidence that supports the need to overturn it.”

A number of downtown bars folded following the implementation of the 21-ordinance, including Vito’s, One-Eyed Jakes, and 808 Restaurant & Night Club.

Wittgraf told The Daily Iowan a greater police presence and smarter underage drinking population — coupled with a diversified landscape — has led to a continued interest in downtown bars.

“Basically, just talking with students, this is something they want more than anything, and I think they should have it,” he said. “They should be allowed to stay all night. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to leave at 10.”

Wittgraf said even with a handful of bars now closed, the number of patrons at his establishment hasn’t changed.

“Whereas it used to get busy at 10, it gets busy at 6 or 7 on the weekends,” he said. “It really hasn’t changed number-wise, just time-wise.”

Wittgraf said, on average, he sees an estimated 600-800 Union patrons, mostly students, between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m on Friday and Saturday nights. In speaking with other bar owners, he said he has noticed a significant drop in PAULAs, around 50 percent, but a rise in smaller, apartment-related parties.

Recalling the past three years, Mayor Matt Hayek said downtown has become safer, more vibrant and balanced. The UI has positioned itself as a stronger university, he said.

“The parade of horribles that was predicted didn’t come to pass,” he said.

Hayek said numerous anecdotal reports from both visitors and residents have shown him that people are more comfortable with coming downtown.

“I think the community recognizes 21-only is working, and I doubt the council will have any interest in reversing the ordinance,” he said.

Hayek said while the majority of bars act responsibly, more progress can be made.

“We still need to give it a chance; it’s only been three years out,” he said. “Thus far, it appears to be functioning very well and downtown is a better place … There are still plenty of bars and most of them act responsibly.”

But two downtown business owners remain divided in regards to the full effect of the ordinance downtown.

Leah Cohen, the owner of Bo-James and an original opponent of the ordinance, said problems remain.

“I’m not certain we’re operating as a 21-town or if we ever have,” she said. “I see a lot of intoxicated underage people downtown, and I have for sometime.”

In contrast, City Councilor and co-owner of Herteen & Stocker Jewelers, 101 S. Dubuque St., Terry Dickens said the downtown benefits have been many and far-reaching.

Dickens said the ordinance has resulted in significantly less trash, a calmer environment and less fewer underage drinking-related hospital visits.

“We used to have a broken window every four to six months,” he said. “Since this has passed, we’ve had no damage.”

UI junior and 21-year-old Ann Ingebritson said she favors returning the bar-entry age to 19.

Regardless of the ordinance, however, she believes the opportunity to consume alcohol remains.

“I think there’s more than plenty of bars,” she said. “The truth is, if you like to drink, you can find a place to drink.”

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