Feb 21, 2012

When's Closing Time in this Town?

Struggling with the “Last Call for Alcohol” Question

The City of Saratoga Springs has a problem. Unfortunately, but as is usually the case, its elites (both governing and chattering) seem incapable +/or unwilling of properly identify the root cause of said problem as a prelude to initiating a proper corrective action. Instead, the primary solution being offered here is what can best be described as a miss.

The Problem:

A handful of well-publicized episodes of mayhem and violence have occurred in the city's downtown Nightlife District over the past year, resulting in both serious injury and even death. When considered in the larger framework of just how large and rowdy said landscape has become, the soul searching has commenced as to the best way to fix this unpleasant situation. While some citizens deny there being a problem that needs fixing, it is apparent that this train has left the station, so to speak.

The Magic Cure:

The response is nothing if not predictable: the answer is to roll back the mandated Closing Hour at the city's numerous drinking establishments. Various proposals floated have suggested 2AM, 1AM and even Midnight. The logic from those supporting such action revolves around a “less drinking equals fewer problems” way of thinking.

Let's Shoot Some Bullet Holes:

It is the view from here that the Magic Cure solution (above) fails for a number of reasons:

1)Even if one accepts the aforementioned “less drinking equals fewer problems” logic (which we tend to do), proponents of the Cure have not established the cause & effect proof that an early/earlier closing time will actually result in less drinking.

Even under the proposed guidelines, the Opening Times of these establishments would still typically be be ten to fifteen hours in advance of the new consumption curfew. Given that 99.9%+ of public drinking durations are of terms less than those windows of opportunity, what is to suggest that the clientele's schedules would not simply time-shift to reflect the new reality?

Whereas Joe and Jane are used to hitting the town at 11:30PM on their weekend date nights, might they now reconsider such a plan of attack if they now face a 1AM end to their festivities? The safe prediction here is that they would, with their carousing now beginning earlier in the evening. The net result, from a strictly alcohol-consumption perspective, is unchanged. Do we not think this scenario would be common? Would the peak attendance time in any given bar not now just occur an hour or two earlier on the clock? Uh-huh.

Furthermore – and contrary to the popular perception – very little alcohol is actually bought and consumed in the final hour or two prior to the current Closing Time in the city. Most establishments choose to close up shop prior to the actual mandated end to the festivities, for lack of paying customers. Meanwhile, owners of those places that go right to the bitter end tell us that business is less-than-minimal during the final hour, and that the staff's time is devoted more to cleanup duties than to serving the demon's rum to the last remaining rail-clingers.

2)Fact: The earlier the Closing Time, the more people are actually effected by it --- and that presents its own set of challenges.

For example, whereas Joe's Bar might have 4 people in the joint for a 3:45AM cry of “last call”, it might have 54 if that bit of bad news gets delivered at 12:45AM. Joe now has a scenario of up to 54 people pressing to get their last dibs, and doing so all at once in a crowded space. Many of them will be grabbing that nightcap ahead of their regularly-scheduled intake flow. After all, it's now or never for that next and final beer. Fifteen minutes later, all 54 are herded out the door at the same time, onto the same narrow public sidewalks and walkways. Then, with nowhere else to go (every other joint is also shutting down), most of them will proceed to their nearby parked automobiles, where they will join up with all the other masses departing from neighboring establishments in a mad dash to the parking lot exits, side streets, highways, byways and egg houses. It's a roller derby out there, but with fancy cars and liquor! Wasn't the overriding goal here one of increased public safety?

Regardless of how one feels about the current/late Closing Time, there can be no denying that it does serve the positive effect of dispersing and dismissing a large mass of people from the District (and the city) over a wider and more manageable timeframe.

Lesson: beware the Law of Unintended Consequences!

3)What about those twin themes of Freedom and Fairness that we all hold so dear?

The last we checked, alcohol is a legal commercial commodity in this city, state and (most of the) nation. Its consumption is likewise legal for the vast majority of adults in those jurisdictions, at least in their leisure time (for some probationers, it is not). One is right to ponder the governmental limits placed on both aspects, with the argument that much of those limits are the result of both the lingering old Puritanism embedded deeply in the American psyche as well as the even more troubling and newly empowered Fundamentalist revival of the modern day being legitimate talking points. Combine them with the quasi-liberal, Bored Housewives aspect of Saratoga politics – with its propensity to repair any and all civic un-pleasantry with (first) a biased commission, and (second) with an edict – and we have the Perfect Storm for misplaced reactive legislation trumping both common sense and the fundamental question of “what is right?”.

We would argue that a bar owner should have the right to determine his or her operating hours (in agreement with the landlord, if applicable). Likewise, a thirsty consumer should have the right to decide at which hour he or she partakes in that legal commodity called alcohol, whether in the privacy of one's own home or in a publicly licensed establishment. Just like my freedom to drive a car should not be denied because other people got into car accidents, my freedom to choose a personal drinking schedule should not be denied because of the social misdeeds of others.

Then we are faced with the question of fairness. A friend works the night shift, and does not return to his adopted city of Saratoga until 1AM on any given morning. Do we care to now deny this hard working stiff and other night owls of their preferred entertainment and socialization alternative with a new Closing Time that kicks in before they walk thru the door? Today's commerce is far removed from the old 9-5 routine of old, especially for those that pretend +/or strive to be globally connected to all time zones. So, in a sense, we could add the third element of economic competitiveness here as well. Be advised: Global Foundries will have three shifts.

4)It's not bars. It's not even certain bars. It's certain types of bars.

If we were to make two lists, one tagged as “Problem” and the other as “Not a Problem,” and then proceeded to place each and every local drinking establishment under one or the other, we would end up with one very short list (Problem) and one very long list (Not a Problem).

Simply put, we know where the problems are most likely to occur in the future. We know that because we know where the problems have occurred in the past. But to just ID each of the trouble spots and then proceed to initiate some sort of individualized action against only them would not be in anyone's best interests, either. Why not? Because we can and should draw a better conclusion from the collected data – and it's staring us right in the face.

Question: what did the Club Shadow mega-brawl; the Metro stabbing; the fatal knifing in front of the dance club on Broadway and the Putnam Den's bouncer vs patron encounter all have in common? Think about it.

Answer: they all occurred in the hyped-up environment of that modern day plague called 'Hip Hop' or the 'Urban Club' culture. (Note: the Putnam Den event took place when that venue had kicked into 'DJ-mode', after the conclusion of its normal and trouble-free live music agenda earlier that evening). (Note 2: the St Patrick's Day death of last year should be analyzed in a separate manner, given the dynamics of that particular calendar date).

Faithful readers of this forum will recognize this theme and know that we've been here before. But facts matter, and the facts (and logic) are all talking here: the unique features and characteristics of these settings is such that it attracts and convenes a clientele pre-inclined to acting irresponsibly and at times violently and at a degree greater than the bar room population in general. Like it or not, here is the hard cold reality: an entertainment establishment that features any mix of EDM/dubstep/DJ beats/whatever and (especially) hip-hop or rap is is destined to either be the actual location of a future violent episode or (at the very least) will attract to the city individuals that will cause the same in nearby venues or streets. Plain, simple and undeniable.

Tagging this whole issue as a “bar problem” or an “alcohol problem” are two samples of the old “throwing out the baby with the bath water” analogy. There are examples of bars in town with larger quantities of suds and grain flowing, yet without issues (think The Parting Glass or even the local VFW Hall). So much for the prevailing theory.

The Solution, Thank You Very Much?

Glad you asked.

1)From a pure contrarian angle, we offer this shocker: eliminate the concept of a Closing Time entirely. That's right: if a bar so chooses, it can operate around the clock.

Think about that, if brave enough: freedom and fairness both live to fight another day. Crowds are better spread out, disbursed and separated throughout the day and night, in a more manageable means. Peak hours attendance in any given room is decreased. There is no longer a rush to the bar at last call. Drunks are no longer pushed out into the streets (and cars) just because the clock says so: they might now have more time to find a ride home or (if the bartender is doing his or her job properly) sober up a bit with some hot coffee. Cabs are more likely to be hailed then they are in the current mad dash on three foot race. Drunk drivers are less likely to slip past police eyeballs, given the more consistent traffic pattern thru the night vs. a mob of drivers passing by them all within a common ten-minute window. Public safety actually improves.

But we know just how well such a suggestion would play out. We can visualize it already: some biddy whose only adventures outside of her own four walls are to PTA meetings will cry “what about the children?” and display a Photoshop'd image of a hammered redneck in a pickup truck mowing down a kid waiting for the school bus. That'll certainly be the end of this crazy idea. But the suggestion remains to be considered on its merits.

2)We also suggest taking a “minimize the bad actors by minimizing the bad plays” approach, based on the prior finger-pointing. But how?

First, we have NYS Tax Law to rely on, believe it or not. A fluke'y aspect of its code imposes a sales tax on most DJ and other such pre-recorded performances (but not performances by a live musical act). Most venues are either unaware of this fact or choose to ignore it. Regardless, most of them are therefore sitting on a substantial tax liability. A local official in the mood for playing hardball would be well armed with this weapon. If any such official is curious as to what this is all about: lean on us.

Simple zoning could also limit the number of such establishments. Its wording would be tricky and take some thinking, but there should be enough brainpower somewhere in City Hall to get it done right; or at least find and copy another town's version.

The expected push back to this approach would be a legitimate concern with that “freedom to do business as the owner sees fit” point we held so dear when discussing operating hours. Our retort would be that this could fall under either public nuisance or simple zoning/planning considerations of the type and extent necessary for urban functionality and progress. In addition, Saratoga's need to continually brand itself as a uniquely-positioned tourist destination is harmed by these types of businesses, hence both an economic development and sustainability argument could be leveled as well. Once this type of framework is established, up-front, a prospective business owner knows the playing field and can then implement his or her operating freedom as seen fit. Changing the game mid-field is not fair, hence a so-called Grandfather clause might be considered for any existing business so effected, within reason.

The danger, of course, is in putting this zoning type of tool into the hands of one of those appointed commissions or to the City Council itself. The fear here is that neither would have the knowledge or reasoning to grasp the shades of gray points we've tried to make here in this essay. Instead, the more likely result would be for them to limit either the number of bars with music or the number of bars, period. Both moves would be improper.

As would the roll back of Closing Time be improper and misguided. But the money here is going on the likelihood of it happening just the same. After all, such a move sure takes a lot less thinking, while at the same time making certain people look awake and concerned.



Funny Cide's Missing Nuts said...

The only part that matters is the freedom to choose part. IMHO

Anonymous said...

You captured the essence of nightime downtown. "Hyped-up environment"? "Hip Hop"? "Urban Club"? This is the culture of an historic Upstate area? The noise is horrendous!! This creates a tense atmosphere which, added to alcohol consumption, leads to violence. How about a noise restriction/decibel revision in the City Code?

DWL said...

I tend to agree. with you and with 7:35. Why do so many of these places think they have to imitate urban clubs? Is there not a unique party envirnoment disctivt for this area that can not be served? There is. It seems to just be a case of certain business people not reading the market correctly.

Keith Raniere's Harem Master said...

I dunno. 3AM is s'posed to make a difference? Lile you said, it's just people looking busy .

Phil the Thrill said...

Hey Dummy,

3AM is the time being discussed by the Council.

I'll bet you $100 it becomes real.