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Editorial: Union exemption dubious

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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This past week, the Union Bar, 121 E. College St., was given an entertainment-venue exemption to the 21-ordinance, allowing patrons aged 19 to 20 to remain in the bar after 10 p.m. on evenings in which there is some sort of performance occurring.

The basic premise of the exception is that if an establishment has more than 150 live performances (music, readings, standup comedy, etc.), it may allow underage patrons in without being subject to a fine. The exemption is only given to places that meet these requirements without also having more than one citation for serving alcohol to minors in the previous five years.

While we are not suggesting that Union Bar doesn’t meet these requirements, there are certain factors surrounding these decisions that we find to be very questionable.

Currently, five downtown businesses hold entertainment-venue exemptions: Blue Moose, 211 Iowa Ave.; Gabe’s, 330 E. Washington St.; Yacht Club, 13 S. Linn St.; Studio 13, 13 S. Linn St.; and Mill, 120 E. Burlington St.

According to Iowa City police statistics, those five establishments have been the site of 340 bar checks, and a total of five citations for PAULA since February 2013, all of which occurred at Blue Moose.

On the other hand, the only bar that was the site of more PAULA citations than Union (48 citations in 205 bar checks) in the past calendar year was Brothers (61), suggesting, at best, that the area around Union is a hotbed for underage drinking, and, at worst, that Union has not exactly been strict in keeping booze out of the hands of those underage. Why the city would grant an under-21 exemption to an establishment with a proven track record of not being able to clamp down on underage drinking is something of a mystery.

That’s especially true considering that the City Council has, in the past, treated the entertainment exemption as a sort of reward for upstanding venues.

“A lot of members of the community are concerned and think we’re deconstructing the 21-ordinance,” Councilor Rick Dobyns said last year when the council was debating an addendum to the entertainment-venue exemption. “But providing nonalcoholic opportunities for students isn’t just rewarding the good guys; we’re still trying to punish the bad guys who don’t quite keep up with alcohol enforcement. Nobody likes police in their bars.”

It may be the case that Union meets the explicit requirements for an exemption, but it’s clear that this is not the type of venue that the city councilors had in mind when they crafted this policy.

Union’s effort to thread the entertainment loophole seems to be a deliberate move to skirt the 21-ordinance. After all, George Wittgraf, the owner of Union, was one of the main drivers of the effort to repeal of the 21-ordinance this past fall. That campaign, which was spearheaded by Wittgraf and a bar manager, made plain their desire to win back the patronage of 19- and 20-year-olds who have been subject to the 10 p.m. ban since 2010.

All of this is not to say that Union shouldn’t be given a fair shot at an entertainment exemption if, as its owner insists, it puts on the necessary shows and it proves that it can keep underage drinking under control. At this point, however, based on its track record, it seems more likely that the Union will become a mecca for underage drinking rather than entertainment.


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