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Nightlife’s Last Call…On the Rocks…

Drink up while you can? (via wikipedia)

SPRINGFIELD—Nearly thirteen months after Mayor Domenic Sarno first launched a crusade against crime by targeting the city’s watering holes, the License Commission began its look at the mayor’s next proposal, a citywide 1 a.m. closing time for bars.  However, unlike many city hearings, this one drew a large and diverse crowd of business owners, patrons and residents, many of whom harshly critiqued the mayor‘s plan.

In December 2011, citing crime and disturbances mostly along Worthington St, Sarno ordered all entertainment in bars to cease at 1 a.m. pursuant to his authority under state law.  The notice of the planned change was minimal and the hearing about it was hastily set the Friday before Christmas weekend.  Exceptions were made for establishments that gleaned at least 40% of their revenue from food, as opposed to alcohol. Some bars fought it, and ultimately cut a deal with the city.

Last year, however, before the full picture of the success/failure of Sarno’s proposal was apparent, the mayor proposed a blanket 1 a.m. bar closing time.  The mayor justified the proposal on the grounds that disturbances downtown—not at bars elsewhere in the city notably—were drawing police resources away from the rest of the city.

Mayor Domenic Sarno (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno (WMassP&I)

Wednesday night, armed with the same argument, Sarno turned to opponents in the audience and made the same pitch again backed by carefully culled police data.  Sarno said a better perception of safety would lead to more business.  He decried bar owners, again mostly downtown, that promised steps be fix the situation but never delivered.  He added that some businesses, which he declined to name, backed the measure.

Sarno said certain “entities“ are coming up into the city after 1 a.m. and “creating havoc.”  Yet even as he described the need for the broad policy, there was an inescapable sense that he was referring to only a few establishments, out of many on Worthington, that were prone to trouble.

Sarno did not stay for the whole meeting, nor addressed the relationship between his proposal and crime elsewhere in the city.  He had touted a low murder rate last year even as the city experienced four homicides this year, none connected to bars or their closing time.  WMassP&I posed a series of questions to him Thursday via email that were not returned.  No follow ups were sent today in light of the storm.

Commissioner William Fitchet (via Springfield PD)

Police Commissioner William Fitchet backed Sarno, but echoing the mayor called many bar owners mostly cooperative.  However, he largely reiterated the argument that attention to Worthington St and elsewhere was depriving the city of police resources.  He also cited the cost of officers on injured leave.  Perhaps the oddest and/or most naïve of his arguments was that “people can change” and go out earlier instead.

Capt. C. Lee Bennett shared statistics alleged to back up the basis of the proposal.  Bennett said police calls and crime between 12 and 3 a.m. had dropped downtown in the first month after the policy was implemented..  The statistical window was relatively small and Bennett did not elaborate much beyond the month after implementation.

Outside of the mayor, police and a letter from the Economic Development department, supporters of the change were limited to a handful of civic associations members largely from far-flung regions of the city.  Only one resident of downtown supported the changes.  None of the supporters of the measure appeared to be under forty.

In stark contrast, opponents of the measure ranged young and old, black and white and everything in between.  They included residents, a 21 year-old college student and owners and employees of establishments from the Hall of Fame to Indian Orchard.

The arguments against varied between pleas for a middle ground solution to confrontational questioning of police tactics and responsiveness.  A few undecided residents spoke, including Carol Costa of the Armory-Quadrangle Civic Association, but expressed skepticism more than support.

A recurring theme of opponents, both bar owners and residents alike, was that Springfield would simply lose out and not attract more patrons earlier due to perceptions of a safer city.  Instead, those wanting to have a fuller night would go to surrounding towns that permit liquor service until 2 a.m. such as Agawam, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Holyoke, Northampton and Westfield.

But most opponents were not opposed to any action, but only to sledgehammer on housefly solutions.  Former City Councilor and attorney Dan Kelly noted that the Springfield License Commission is one of the most active boards he practice before.  Rather than act rashly, the Commission should “take steps” to address the matter, he said.  Kelly also lent support for 1 a.m. no-reentry.  Under this policy, bars could serve until 2 a.m., but would not be permitted to admit or readmit any patrons after 1 a.m.

A view of Samuel’s restaurant alter-ego J. Quincy’s (via masslive/Mark Murray)

Edward Grimaldi, the proprietor of Samuel’s at the Basketball Hall of Fame also expressed support for a 1 a.m. no reentry policy, saying he was in the process of implementing it at Samuel’s.  Launching into a spirited and wonky, if a bit meandering presentation, he outlined not only his establishment’s current operations, but laid out a stark vision of how the changes would affect Samuel’s.

According to Grimaldi, Samuel’s employs about 80 people, nearly three quarters of which are Springfield residents.  By contrast, about the same amount of Samuel’s patrons are from outside the city.  The clientele, casual but slightly upscale, Grimaldi explained, make a full evening, often staying close to closing time.  Closing an hour earlier would send patrons elsewhere altogether and force him to either radically remake the establishment or face insolvency in six months.

Because many of his costs will not change, like rent, Grimaldi said he would have to redesign his business in order to survive.  Late nights’ business subsidizes the costs of prep during other parts of the day.  “The kitchen would need to be pared down” during the hours normally used to prep for dinner around 3 p.m.  “High end” meals “would have to be eliminated,” Grimaldi explained.  Layoffs would be inevitable.

Other bar owners offered less elaborate opposition.  The owner of the Regal Beagle in Indian Orchard said the 1 a.m. closing time would effectively kill her business.  She explained that much of her business came from postal workers and correctional officers at the jail in Ludlow who get out of work around midnight.

Confirming the fears of the bar owners, several younger residents said point blank that elimination of that last hour at bars would sour them to going out in Springfield.  One resident, Jonathan Albano, said he and his friends would go to Boston or Hartford (where liquor service ends at 1:30 on weekends) rather than stay local.  A Western New England student said her friends would be more likely to go to a movie or not go out at all.

To applause, one speaker alleged, referring to the city and the police department, “you don’t wanna deal” with the problem of crime.  This statement touched off more confrontational charges hurled at the police for failing to properly patrol the entertainment district or arrest troublemakers.  Another resident worried the criminal elements will merely go to house parties elsewhere in the city, where she said a friend was once killed.

The impression was left that the mayor and Fitchet had been arguing that the bars and clubs were sapping the city’s police resources.  In other words, the city was too poor to properly police its bars, therefore, they bars’ must close earlier.

Several owners/managers joined that chorus of complaints aimed at the city.  One owner flat out denied Sarno’s earlier allegation that bar owners had failed to live up to their promises.  Others complained Sarno pushed this proposal without input from the proprietors.  One manager said he waited a half hour for police to help dispatch an unruly patron.

Other current and former officials spoke as well.  At-large Councilor Tim Rooke likened the current effort to an attempt by former mayor Charles Ryan to go after the bars on Worthington St in the early part of the last decade.  Many former bars remain vacant.  Former Ward 6 City Councilor Amaad Rivera offered a different perspective.  He said that the bars, particularly along Worthington St, had been both helpful and eager to provide venues for the city’s gay community to hold events.

While Samuel’s had not yet needed to resort to layoffs, others spoke of jobs already lost.  Carlos Menendez, who works in real estate but also helps hires bouncers for clubs, said he had to let some people go after the 1 a.m. entertainment rule went into effect.  A parade of bartenders, many of whom said they worked multiple jobs also chimed in.  Some said they had already lost money due to the entertainment rules.  Others worried that they would definitely lose income if the blanket 1 a.m. closure took effect.

Under the structure of the hearing, proponents of the measure were entitled to rebuttal, but by then only Fitchet and Bennett were still there.  They did formally respond in rebuttal, but did answer some of the commissioners’ questions.  Commissioner Orlando Ramos asked Fitchet what police deployment in the city looks like, but Fitchet demurred on releasing that information publicly.

The police commissioner repeated that uneasiness on the subject to WMassP&I even on a historical basis, fearing it would expose the police’s limited resources.  The decline in police manpower has been publicly known for some time, although, over the past ten years, the losses at the Police Department have paled in comparison to the Fire Department.

Commissioners made no decisions Wednesday night and Chair Peter Sygnator reminded all present that the mayor’s proposal was only that.  There may not be an up or down vote, but rather the commission could fashion its own policy.  Notarized written testimony will be accepted until February 21.  The Commission did say it could not order a blanket 1 a.m. reentry policy, although bar owners could voluntarily submit to one.

Whatever the Commission’s decision is, it will have wide-ranging costs.  Jillian Mercandante, who arranges security for several bars on Worthington St said she would likely lose the job that paid for and did not conflict with her school schedule.  She added that while she felt Sarno was sincere about improving the city’s reputation, the mayor’s media responses after an incident downtown often does not help counter negative perceptions.  “I want to live in a city,” and she doesn’t want to leave she said.  However if these proposal went through, without a job and nightlife, there would be little reason for her to continue living downtown just as the city is hoping to bring more visitors and downtown there.