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Defense Attorney Says Alcohol Ban Not The Answer For State Patty's Day

by on February 20, 2014 7:00 AM

A local attorney says asking downtown bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol on State Patty's Day is not the right solution to curb rowdiness related to the Penn State student-created event.

Matt McClenahen, a State College defense attorney and Penn State graduate, says says on any given weekend, if alcohol is not served, the number of alcohol-related crimes will naturally decrease. At the same time, closing bars is not beneficial for the local economy.

"The bars are not the problem. The bars are the safest place to drink and the money that is spent in the bars has a beneficial impact on this community," McClenahen told StateCollege.com.

This week, Penn State officials said the university, for the second year in a row, will offer cash to downtown businesses in exchange for a ban on alcohol sales during the March 1 event. University, law enforcement and borough officials say the goal is to ultimately put an end to State Patty's Day.

Last year, the university paid $5,000 to downtown bars and restaurants in exchange for an alcohol-free day. McClenahen recently highlighted the issue on his law firm's blog, saying such a move negatively impacts employees at the establishments, from bartenders to servers.

"The hundreds of bartenders and servers who missed out on a lucrative pay day were collateral damage, who never received any compensation, while the $5,000 paid to the bar owners was a small pittance compared to their revenue on a normal Saturday when the students are in town," he wrote.

Police, borough and university officials attribute last year's 37-percent drop in crime to the alcohol-free zone. However, McClenahen says other initiatives were the actual contributing factors, such as the Interfraternity Council voluntarily banning parties for the weekend and the university restricting the number of guests allowed in dorms.

"The bottom line is shutting down frat parties and limiting dorm guests worked, while shutting down the bars wasted ... money while also draining money from the local economy," he wrote. "It was a waste of money to bribe the bars to stay closed last year because the bars were never really the problem."

McClenahen, who has represented State Patty's Day offenders in court, says the majority of State Patty's Day offenses are not bar-related.

"First of all, State Patty's Day is primarily celebrated at house and apartment parties. Secondly, a large percentage of the drunken revelers are under 21, and as everyone knows, fake IDs do not work at State College bars," he wrote.

Additionally, he says bars are actually the safest place for people to drink alcohol.

"There are sober adults in charge in the form of managers, bartenders and bouncers, who will cut off and throw out anyone who has had too much to drink. They will also call the police and detain anyone who has crossed the line into criminal activity," he wrote.

Still, Penn State and borough officials maintain that the alcohol-free zone played a significant role in last year's decline in arrests and emergency room visits.

"It was not a 'waste of money' to compensate establishments for their assistance. With many State Patty's Day revelers coming from out of town, the idea behind discouraging the sale or serving of alcohol is to make downtown and State Patty's Day as a whole less attractive to visitors looking to party," says Penn State Spokesman Bill Zimmerman.

This year, a four-tier compensation system will be offered to individual establishments based on the occupancy levels of each.

- Businesses with occupancy of 350 or more: $7,500

- Businesses with occupancy from 250-349: $6,000

- Businesses with occupancy from 100-249: $5,000

- Businesses with occupancy levels less than 100: $2,500

Compensation is in exchange for establishments not selling alcohol during the 24-hour period of Saturday, March 1.

In a letter to businesses, the university said, "Obviously, the licensed establishments that sell and serve alcohol downtown are not the cause of the trouble State Patty's Day brings. In fact, the hospitality vendors downtown have been good partners in trying to mitigate the event's many harms."

Zimmerman agreed with McClenahen that the Interfraternity Council's party restrictions and Resident Life's one-guest policy helped lead to 2013's improvements. Those policies will also be in place for this year's event.

Funding will come from university resources outside tuition, state appropriations or private gift dollars. Last year, money came from revenues produced by campus parking operations on previous State Patty's Days, Zimmerman says. This year, funds will likely again come from auxiliary enterprises such as parking.

State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine says it's important to note that tax dollars are not used in the alcohol-free zone initiative. Additionally, he says the temporary ban on alcohol sales makes a difference.

"By having an alcohol free zone in downtown State College, much of the mayhem on the streets that fueled this event in the downtown was reduced," says Fountaine. "There was a significant reduction in all of the measures of this event, including arrests for underage drinking and public drunkenness. It is especially significant to note that there was a reduction in the number of emergency room admissions involving alcohol."

Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims says it is reasonable to assume that the combination of last year's initiatives, including the alcohol-free zone, contributed to less crime and fewer hospital visits.

"Despite Matt's characterization that these payments represent an act of desperation, I think most involved, including the hospitality vendors themselves, see the full package as a community-wide collaborative effort aimed at ending an unfortunate event," says Sims. "We're quite proud of the mutually respectful collaboration that we've managed to achieve, and we stand on the evidence of its very good outcomes last year."

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government. jenn.miller@statecollege.com
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