Editorial: A cooperative approach better serves bars, patrons

It’s not exactly a shock that bars and taverns in downtown San Luis Obispo generate more police calls than, say, shoe stores or stationery shops.

What’s more surprising to us is that it took a city-paid consultant $22,000 and more than 300 pages to reach that obvious conclusion.

Armed with that report, last week the City Council directed its staff to look at various ways to better control the alcohol “problem” downtown.

To be fair, it isn’t just statistics driving this. City officials have been concerned for some time that police officers are spending so much time on alcohol-related calls in the downtown that it’s affecting officers’ ability to get out to residential neighborhoods. On top of that, downtown merchants are fed up with coming to work in the morning to find urine, vomit and trash on their doorsteps — presumably left over from early morning revelers, though some bar owners say the homeless population could be contributing to the problem.

Clearly, no one should have to put up with some random drunk’s urine and vomit on their doorsteps — whether it’s at their home or their business. And it is a concern if police are spending an inordinate amount of time on downtown drunk patrol.

However, we believe it’s premature to take drastic measures to curb a problem that might be overblown.

We aren’t convinced that downtown bars and restaurants are the demons some would make them out to be, and we’re skeptical about relying too heavily on one consultant’s report.

For one thing, that report looked at only one year’s worth of statistics, so we have no sense of whether the problems that are occurring are getting better or worse.

Also, it’s unclear where some of the incidents originated. Alcohol-related “events” that occurred outside a bar or restaurant were still attributed to that business — even if the unruly party triggering the police call had not been a patron.

Hence, the Natural Café on Higuera Street — known more for its healthy cuisine than for its beer and wine selection — wound up with 11 alcohol-related “events” that included public drunkenness, even though a manager couldn’t recall a single time that police had to be called to take care of an out-of-control, drunken patron.

Our take: Rather than requiring new city permits for alcohol outlets and passing a slew of more stringent conditions — two proposals the city is considering — the city should first try other, less invasive methods. Requirements could be ramped up later, if necessary.

Bill Hales, an owner of several downtown bars, has a couple of excellent suggestions.

One is to start a cleanup “hot line” much like the existing graffiti line. Merchants who find a mess on their doorsteps in the morning could call the hot line, and a cleaning crew would respond.

The other is to start a shuttle service — at least on busy weekend nights — between Cal Poly and the downtown, to further discourage students from drinking and driving.

Both are practical solutions that should be put into place. The question is how to pay for them.

Hales said the Downtown Bar and Restaurant Association plans to approach the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Association about pitching in on the clean-up program.

Good idea. We agree that it would make sense for all downtown businesses to sponsor a program that would benefit everyone.

However, we believe it’s also reasonable for the city to charge businesses that serve alcohol a modest annual fee, provided the money goes directly to services that would ameliorate the impacts of the late-night bar scene.

Bar and restaurant owners may object to being singled out for a special fee, but we aren’t talking huge amounts of money. In other communities that have passed such ordinances, the fees have ranged in the neighborhood of $750 to $1,500 per year.

We believe that’s fair.

We also believe it’s fair to crack down — hard — on any businesses that might be generating real problems by repeatedly allowing customers to get drunk and disorderly.

But penalizing all businesses that serve alcohol with more stringent regulations or onerous fees is not the way to go.

It’s time to acknowledge that alcohol is legal for adults, and find a way to deal with that safely and sanely.

Downtown bars and restaurants offer alcohol in a controlled environment where young adults — whether college students, visitors or employees of local businesses — can party without disrupting residential neighbors.

In return, those customers provide the bar and restaurant industry with desperately needed income, as well as sales tax revenue for the city.

We urge the city, the downtown merchants and the bar and restaurant owners to work cooperatively to find reasonable solutions that will address real — rather than perceived — alcohol-related problems in the downtown.