If activists have their way, bars will stay open an extra hour – but first they’ll have to get through the opposition of local leaders and the indifference of some members of the county legislature.
Cornell Democrats and members of the Student Assembly are working with local activists, small business owners, legislators and residents to try to push back closing time at bars in Tompkins County to 2 a.m. Now, the bars must stop serving at 1 a.m.
Citing safety, activists claim that pushing back closing time will decrease binge drinking, drunk driving and noisy after-parties — as well as make for a better time for students and vastly increased sales for local taverns and tax revenue for local governments.
Thursday, the first highly public phase of the campaign to push back closing time will kick off with the introduction of a resolution in the Student Assembly. Leaders hope to bring a proposal to the attention of the Tompkins County Legislature Nov. 7, where they hope the Government Operations Committee will take it up for review.
If the proposal succeeds, the committee will officially request TCAT and the Ithaca Common Council to investigate the ramifications of a closing time pushback. Then the proposal would go to the full County Legislature for a vote.
New York State laws require bars to stop serving alcohol at 4 a.m. Further restriction is left up to the state’s 62 counties.
Tim Joseph, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, said he had heard little about the proposal.
“I gather there’s some kind of organized campaign going on,” he said. “It seems like its being done by people who really don’t know how to get legislation passed.”
Joseph said that other than automated emails from respondents who had completed a survey at ithacaextendedhours.com, no one had contacted him about the proposal. He also said that he was not interested in any proposal to extend closing times.
Students leading the effort to extend closing time in Tompkins County include Mitch Fagen ’07, former president of the Cornell Democrat, Adam Gay ’07, the Democrats’ current president and a representative to the Student Assembly, David Gelinas ’07 (D-4th Ward) and County Legislator Nathan Shinagawa ’05. Within Ithaca, they are collaborating with groups including the Tompkins County Tavern and Restaurant Association and Herb Dwyer’s Ithaca Forward Together, a networking group for young professionals.
Shinagawa stressed in interviews that he realizes that residents have serious and valid concerns about pushing back closing time and that he is merely interested in beginning a dialogue on the issue.
In an email statement to local leaders, he cited uniform bar closing times between counties, safer drinking practices and reducing the number of after-hours parties as positive aspects of the change. On the other hand, Shinagawa wrote that he was concerned about late-night noise and the theoretically necessary extension of TCAT service and staffing hours by local law enforcement.
“The only way we’re going to get anywhere is by having an open dialogue about it,” Shinagawa said in an interview with The Sun. “The moment you take a very strong position one way, you lose your ability to talk to people about it. It’s such a personal issue [for full-time residents] that it would be disrespectful for me to say, no, you’re completely wrong.”
“The only way this issue will really resonate for people … is if we show just how diverse the group of people are that want this to happen.”
Still, Shinagawa waxed optimistic that the proposal would become an important part of local discussion going into the winter.
“This is going to be bigger than taxes,” he said.
Gay seemed concerned that advocates demonstrate a broader benefit to extending closing.
“There are obviously these legitimate safety concerns, and that’s absolutely why we’re doing this,” he said.
“A lot of drunk driving incidents occur because of people speeding across county lines. People are much less likely to get dangerously intoxicated in bars. It is a common sense issue which should happen, but there is a stigma attached to it,” he said, adding, “If just kids do it, it looks like it’s kids wanting to party longer.”
Gay also said that members of the tavern association had told him that the measure could result in an extra $100,000 to $200,000 in added local tax revenues. Within an eight percent tax, four percent goes to the state and the remaining four percent is split evenly between the city and county. That means local establishments themselves would gain between $2.5 million and $5 million in revenue due to increased alcohol sales.
The organizers have not lost sight of more pedestrian concerns.
“1:00 a.m. is just too early to end most people’s night,” Gelinas said. “I think the bar closing time ought to reflect the urban, metropolitan character of the area.”
But opposition to the measure is in some cases heated.
“I have some very serious concerns here about those who use alcohol who feel that drinking in a bar until one o’clock in the morning is not long enough,” said Maria Coles, an alderperson for Ward 1, which includes parts of West Hill and South Hill, the area around Ithaca College.
Coles said she was concerned about drinkers’ health and safety, neighborhood noise and the logistics of providing extended bus service and added police presence.
“I don’t see a reason in the world that I would use tax money for the purpose,” she said. “I don’t know of a single year-round resident who is advocating for bars to be open later. We’ve reached a point of balance with the noise ordinance between year-round residents and students who want to let go … this would throw the balance back again.”
“If the noise ordinance would go away, I think we would have a revolt in many neighborhoods in Ithaca,” she added. “People literally said [when the noise proposal was being considered], if you don’t do something about this, we’ll never vote for you again.”
Coles said that in the South Hill area of her district, raucous student behavior continues to bother residents.
“An elderly couple looked out of their window one fine evening and saw a group of students mooning them,” she said. “I have been told that people drunk out of their minds have somehow made their way into people’s homes and went to sleep on their couches, and they found them there in the morning.”
Coles was insistent about couching the terms of her opposition.
“It is not because I am a prude or because I don’t like to have fun or because I have Victorian notions of what it means for people to have fun, but because there must be a balance.
“I’m really trying to approach this with an open mind and an open heart.
“I’ve raised three sons and I know intimately and I’ve seen it in friends’ sons and daughters what inebriation has done to people.”
Coles, like Timothy Marchell, the director of mental health initiatives at Gannett Health Center, expressed suspicion about student claims that extending closing time would lead to more responsible drinking practices.
“How is that going to restrict drinking? How is that going to improve behavior?” Coles said. “If someone could guarantee civic peace after 2 a.m., then the picture would be completely different.”
“If all those who drink at bars would sign something saying ‘I will pledge to be on the bus at 2 a.m., and I will not try to walk home and either get myself hurt or do damage to somebody’s porch,’ then you have a completely different picture,” she added.
Marchell questioned organizers’ claims that extending closing time would produce a cross-county uniformity that would reduce the level of drunk driving.
“You’d be matching some of the counties, but you’d be offsetting some of the other ones,” said Marchell, who said he has a map depicting closing times in counties across New York State.
He also dismissed the notion that more time in bars means safer drinking.
“In general the literature suggests that increasing the availability of alcohol sales increases consumption,” Marchell said.
“There are other things [besides extending closing times] that restaurant and bar owners can do,” he said.
Marchell said that Ruloff’s and Collegetown Bagels put their employees through “responsible beverage service training” and that bars can also help alleviate binge drinking by “not having high risk drink specials or sake bombs” and using ID scanners at the door.
“Drinking to get drunk is a high risk activity,” Marchell said. “There are many bars that do a pretty good job of regulating their service. That said, drinking at bars can be pretty high risk as well. We have seen some very serious levels of alcohol poisoning that have been a result of sake bombing.”