STATE COLLEGE — Remember the fallout surrounding the student-created holiday “State Patty’s Day” in February?
Bars attracted a lot of students during State Patty’s Day, but also the attention of liquor control enforcement.
It’s not nearly over. Especially for bar owners taking the brunt of the heat.
Soon after State College Police Chief Tom King called that February Saturday “deplorable and harmful,” stories and complaints began circulating, making their way to the ears of the commander in charge of keeping in check the bars in our area.
“State Patrick’s Day this year highlighted some quality of life problems up there,” said state police Sgt. Wayne A. Bush, of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement. “College town or not, the residents shouldn’t have to tolerate those problems day in and day out. So we decided to step up enforcement and improve the quality of life for residents up there.”
Bush said his undercover officers came to State College after State Patty’s Day and reported back “staggering drink specials” and “booze was just flowing.”
“They have bartenders who just keep pouring drinks,” he said. “That’s just bad things waiting to happen.”
He made it no secret. They decided to step up enforcement. As a result, in the first six months of 2009, the LCE handed out 19 citations to bars in the Centre Region, up from 12 in the same time period in 2008.
They also gave out 18 warning notices, up from six in the first six months of 2008.
“It’s definitely got everyone’s attention,” said Duke Gastiger, who owns The Rathskeller on Pugh Street and Spats Cafe above.
But, as you could imagine, bar owners don’t exactly see it the same as Bush does. They quickly noticed the increased enforcement and invited Bush to a meeting of the local Tavern Association.
“State Patty’s Day certainly gives a black eye to the downtown,” Gastiger said. “But taverns are pretty much a backseat driver. As a whole, we can’t affect much what happens on State Patty’s Day.
“The reason why that meeting was called was so we had a clear understanding of why enforcement was stepped up and what we could do as licensees,” Gastiger said. “I thought it was a positive step.”
Bush was upfront with them, explaining that
after state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, met with his bosses, he took the initiative to give State College more attention.
“I don’t know what happened in the meeting with Sen. Corman and my boss, but I took that as an indicator that I should look,” Bush said.
Corman last week said he had a meeting but didn’t ask for increased enforcement.
That Tavern Association meeting, which happened a few weeks ago, was productive overall, according to accounts from both sides.
Gastiger said there were certain owners there who complained they were being “singled out,” but overall there was understanding.
“I never felt that they were picking on my business,” Gastiger said. “You can either play by the rules or get your hand slapped. There are people not playing by the rules and getting their hands slapped, and they shouldn’t be surprised.”
Violations — like serving underage drinkers, intoxicated people, or violating the noise ordinance — have been handed out to about 10 different establishments in the Centre Region so far this year, according to records compiled by the Centre Daily Times.
Some of the bars were cited more than once, making the total number of citations issued higher.
“We all have our different points of view,” said Jennifer Zangrilli, director of operations for Dante’s Restaurants Inc., which owns seven establishments. “I understand what the LCE’s job is to do. To enforce the policies to protect customers. In the same, we are in business to make customers happy. I think we can do that and work together.”
Mike Desmond, partner in Hotel State College, including Zeno’s Pub and Bill Pickle’s Tap Room, said he understands the frustration but thinks it’s misdirected.
“Often what happens is that authorities, sometimes including the newspaper, tend to refer to the bars as compared to the real source of most of the alcohol and that’s the state stores,” Desmond said. “It’s perfectly legal for people to buy unlimited amounts of hard alcohol at the state stores.”
That weekend, the state stores sold $250,000 worth of alcohol, $50,000 more than their sales from the Ohio State football weekend last year that ended with a downtown riot.
Desmond added that it’s becoming more common for students to come into bars already abusing medication, or intoxicated from drinking at fraternity houses.
Zangrilli said she’d estimate 90 percent of patrons come in after drinking heavily in their apartments or other private places. “I think the problem lies in the culture of drinking in this generation,” Zangrilli said. “I make a good living with it, but the problem lies in what today’s college student is doing.”
Those things may be true, Bush said, but bars have a legal obligation to make sure they aren’t contributing to the binge drinking culture.
He pointed out that during drink specials, it’s not uncommon to see bartenders downtown do nothing but continuously pour drinks.
King said age compliance test, when undercover officers show underage identification to bouncers, shows about 15 to 20 percent of bars tested fail.
And since State Patty’s Day there has been a big focus on service to visibly intoxicated people.
“Service to intoxicated patrons concerns all of us,” said Gatsiger, who called himself “one of the lucky ones” who hasn’t been cited. “It’s not the business that we’re in, catering to intoxicated guests, and as a community member I don’t want those kinds of people coming into our streets.”
But a lot of noise, if you will, is being made over citations for having amplified sound penetrating outside the bar — an example Bush offered, when people in surrounding apartments can’t sleep since “the bass was vibrating your glasses off your nightstand.”
Gastinger said those citations are often “petty.” Desmond called them “inconsistent and not well defined.”
Many bar owners would like to see the noise ordinance enforcement turned over to State College police, which may happen since the Borough Council is considering passing such a law.
That way, Zangrilli said, noise violations wouldn’t be a mark against the liquor license because they wouldn’t be issued by liquor enforcement agents.
King says he’s researching the amount of manpower that would take for his officers who are already busy at peak bar hours.
“I don’t think it’ll be a lot of initial work for us,” King said. “And anytime issues can be addressed at the local level that’s better.”
He also would like to see more of the liquor code enforcement turned over to local authorities, since he said his officers are here every day and have a better understanding of what’s going on.
But they don’t have the funding for that, and would need to change liquor laws at the state level in order to get that done. “In many cases they just won’t grant us the authority to do something,” King said.
In the meantime, he asked the LCE to come up here and enforce “at every opportunity you have to do it.”
On State Patty’s Day in particular, bars run by Desmond, Zangrilli and Gastiger were in the majority that didn’t participate in any promotions at King’s request.
“Do we close our doors? Of course not,” Gastiger said. “We’d be silly to do that, we have a restaurant to run. We’re sort of powerless in controlling what
happens on that day.”
They may not have encouraged it, but Bush said, “They didn’t do anything to discourage it either.”
His undercover officers missed this past State Patty’s Day, but don’t expect that to happen again.
“That will be different this year, I promise,” Bush said.