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21-only up for debate once again

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | JUNE 28, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Iowa City bar scene is set for a shakeup.

For the third time since 2007, the bar-entry age issue could yet again go to the polls.

The Iowa City City Clerk’s Office confirmed Thursday morning that a petition submitted several weeks ago by the operators of two downtown bars has garnered 2,604 valid signatures, all calling for the repeal of the city’s 21- ordinance.

George Wittgraf, the owner of the Union Bar, and Josh Erceg, a manager at Martinis, led the petition initiative.

A total of 2,500 registered Iowa City voters were needed to initiate action by the City Council. In all, 5,716 signatures were submitted.

So what does this mean now for the law that bans those younger than 21 from being in most, but not all, establishments with liquor licenses after 10 p.m.?

The City Council must now do one of two things. The proposal will either be approved by councilors or the issue will be left to the discretion of local voters.

And with a council that largely favors the 21-ordinance, the former doesn’t seem likely.

“I think it’s highly unlikely the council would repeal the ordinance in light of the petition, and that means that we will likely see a ballot issue in the fall,” Mayor Matt Hayek said.

Hayek and several city councilors say Iowa City has become not only a safer community, but downtown business diversification efforts safety have improved.

The 21-ordinance can be largely attributed to that, they contend.

“I think downtown is the strongest it’s been in decades,” Hayek said. “… The business landscape is more balanced, the neighborhoods did not implode as was predicted, and our entertainment district is arguably more vibrant than it was before. It had a calming effect.”

Hayek said the success of the ordinance is far-reaching, from the sidewalk cafés and new retail stores to added office and residential units.

Since going into effect in 2010, a number of additional ordinances, including those that prohibit a new liquor establishment opening within 500 feet of an existing one and entertainment-venue measures, have made it so a repeal wouldn’t signal an influx of more bars.

City Councilor Connie Champion said, although she could only speak for herself, doesn’t think fellow councilors would vote to return to a 19 environment, because the area has become safer without the 5,000 to 6,000 weekend visitors who came each weekend knowing they could get away with drinking underage.

“The bar owners choose not to obey the law, and I blame them,” she said. “I don’t want to go through it again, but I will.”

University of Iowa Student Government President and longtime Iowa City resident Katharine Valde said she thought it was “pretty likely” that the issue will appear on the ballot, but she was cautious about the controversial measure.

She said she expects the issue to arise in student Senate meetings when the fall semester begins.

“It’s going to be a tricky issue, and I think it might be a divisive one,” she said. “… But I don’t really know how they will vote.”

UI sophomores Allison Levy and Shuo Chi agreed that a transition back to 19 would produce beneficial outcomes, such as fewer house parties, but they differed on the final outcome and reasoning.

While Chi said those under 21 should accompanied by someone of age if the 21-ordinance is overturned, Levy said allowing underage patrons in the bars beyond 10 p.m. may actually bring in fewer citations and alcohol-related concerns.

“If it were 19, not as many [drinking] tickets would be given out because there would be fewer house parties getting busted,” she said.

Wittgraf said people younger than 21 still frequent the bars, they’re just starting sooner, around 7 p.m.

“[Opponents of the 21-ordinance] think it’s a wonderful thing, but in my opinion, nothing’s been accomplished,” he said. “I think honestly, police would prefer to have the bulk of the students in the downtown area so they’re not running around going from house party to house party.

He said once he sees the measure on the November ballot, a campaign will proceed.

“The kids basically rule this town,” he said. “Iowa City wouldn’t be the same without them. They’re 18, they’re adults, and they should be able to enjoy all the businesses, not just a few of them.”


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