Iowa City has been described as a unique travel destination, even a Mecca, for people in surrounding communities. But the reason people flock to this town is not its vibrant music scene, nor its diverse theatre community, or even its rich literary tradition.
No, the predominant reason people come to Iowa City is simple: alcohol.
With bar entry set at the unusual age of 19, underage persons come in droves to Iowa City, joining UI students as they crowd into the city’s 52 bars every weekend. City residents have equated the presence of underage bar-goers, from both inside and outside the Iowa City community, with high rates of overconsumption and violence in the downtown area.
And with Mayor Matt Hayek leading the charge, the Iowa City City Council is determined to do something about the city’s “culture of consumption.”
On March 29 the city council passed its second reading of an ordinance that would raise the bar entry age to the legal drinking age of 21. Both readings of the ordinance passed by a vote of 6-1, with councilor Regenia Bailey casting the only dissenting vote.
Hayek has been among the council’s most vocal supporters of the ordinance, despite having opposed a similar measure two years ago that was ultimately voted down by city residents.
“We know that underage drinkers get more intoxicated than legal age drinkers,” Hayek said at the March 23 meeting. “For the city this translates into public intoxication and other criminal offenses, problems downtown.”
And while Bailey agreed that the downtown culture needs to be addressed, she called the 21-ordinance “paternalistic” and said it unfairly targets a certain age group of young adults.
“I don’t think the local government should play the role of, I guess I call it uber-parents,” Bailey said. “Just because there are some bad apples in [a] class of people, I do not assume that entire class of people deserves to be addressed in a specific way.”
The ordinance will undergo its third and final reading on April 6, and if passed, will most likely go into effect on June 1.
Like Hayek, many people are convinced the ordinance is necessary to help preserve the health and safety of city residents.
At the March 23 meeting Charles Green, the assistant vice president for UI police, called on the fact that Iowa City has become a “magnet for other communities” as one of the causes for downtown violence and other criminal behavior.
Green said that in 2009 a majority of public intoxication charges, 273 of 462, actually came from non-students.
“I firmly believe that a 21-law will improve the health and safety of not just our students, but young people in general,” Green said.
Opponents of the ordinance say it will force underage drinkers into neighborhood house parties which will be more difficult to police. Many opponents have also cited the fact that over the last year the Iowa City Police Department has had trouble policing the downtown area alone, with UI police often needed for overtime duty.
Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine sent a memo to the city council in which he assured the council that the department is prepared to handle any increase in neighborhood parties.
Hargadine was not available for comment on this story.
But for many residents the health of underage drinkers is more concerning than public intoxication or PAULA rates.
Victoria Sharp, president of the Johnson County Medical Society, said underage drinking can impact brain development and leads to higher rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths and injuries.
“There’s a significant risk associated with underage drinking because the adolescent brain development continues through the twenties,” Sharp said. “This can have long term consequences for both individuals and communities.”
Sharp suggested that simply reducing access to alcohol could greatly improve the health and safety of the community.
Doug Beardsley, director of the Johnson County Public Health Department, also expressed concern for the health of city residents.
Beardsley said over a third of all alcohol-related ambulance calls in the county are for the downtown area, and the majority of those are for 19-year-olds.
“It just screams out that intervention is needed,” Beardsley said. “The current policy says that we’re really not serious about underage drinking.”
A question of culture
But believe it or not, some say bars aren’t just for drinking.
Many residents have expressed concern that a 21-ordinance will impact the city’s culture by making it impossible for underage persons to take part in the city’s music and arts scene.
Brett Thomas, the owner of Studio 13, which caters to the city’s GLBT community, said the ordinance would eliminate a safe haven for young gay individuals.
“We’re not so much a bar as much as we are a community center,” Thomas said. “Kids use the drag shows and the dancing as an excuse to come out and feel normal.”
Other residents say they are worried about more traditional venues losing visitors as well.
“All we want to do is make sure that these kids have an outlet, something to do,” Perry said. “Much of what we do is just focused on giving people an artistic outlet.”
And while there are already provisions in the current ordinance that allow venues to conduct all-ages shows through cooperation with the police department, people like Perry are still worried about the impact of a 21-only law.
“I’m not afraid of losing business,” Perry said. “I’m afraid of Iowa City losing culture.”
But unlike Perry, some business owners are much more concerned about the economic impact of the ordinance.
Marty Maynes, owner of The Union Bar, told the council that his business would almost certainly fail and force him into bankruptcy if the ordinance were passed.
Maynes said he has continually worked with the council on the issue, and even said he’s paid $20,000 of his own money to increase police presence and help curb violence in the downtown area.
“There are some of us out there doing it the right way,” Maynes said. “There’s other options I believe that we can do.”
A magic bullet?
And indeed there have been an abundance of alternatives proposed. Suggestions include everything from targeting specific bars as 21-only, to a two-tiered system where alcohol is only served on one level of a bar, to maintaining a constant police presence in the bars.
And despite all the arguments for and against the ordinance, most agree that the solution to the city’s problem with alcohol goes beyond any one ordinance.
Councilor Susan Mims articulated that sentiment at the March 23 meeting.
“I don’t think any of us up here are naïve enough, nor any of you there, to think that this is going to solve the problem,” Mims said. “It’s simply one piece to a much bigger problem.”