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Alcohol-Free Downtown on State Patty’s Day Unlikely

It’s still unclear how downtown bars and taverns will handle this year’s State Patty’s Day event, but one thing is nearly certain, the downtown area will not be alcohol-free.

While authorities attribute a drastic decrease in crime to the closure of downtown bars during last year’s State Patty’s Day, some bars may stay open this year. The State College Tavern Association is slated to meet Tuesday to discuss the issue.

Duke Gastiger, owner of The Rathskeller and Spats Café, says the association is working to find common ground with Penn State University so that both sides are happy.

Last year, all downtown businesses were alcohol-free in exchange for $5,000 each paid by the university. Gastiger says he has not yet decided if he will close The Rathskeller, a college-oriented bar, over State Patty’s Day weekend.

Part of his uncertainty stems from customers’ feedback last year. Spats Café was open for dining, however, Gastiger says many customers complained about the no-alcohol policy. Gastiger also admits he did not support last year’s alcohol-free approach.

“What happened last year was really unusual. It was a drastic measure,” says Gastiger. “What I was hoping for last year was that it not be an anti-alcohol message. A no-alcohol zone never made sense to me. Bars that attract young revelers … and bona fide restaurants that appeal to the townspeople and visitors who come in and drink responsibly, I think there is a tremendous distinction. … I think that is part of the reluctance for me to close this year, although that I haven’t decided either way.”

If Gastiger decides to keep the Rathskeller open, he says he will ensure that out-of-town guests here to party will not be rewarded. That could mean eliminating drink specials, entertainment and low cover charges.

“We would put procedures together to let everybody that comes into the Skeller understand that this is sort of a special weekend, as far as clamping down on anything considered not accepted by the community,” he says.

As of now, bars and taverns are expected to decide individually how they will handle the event that promotes binge drinking.

At the Tavern Association meeting Tuesday, Gastiger says members will work to establish a statement or initiative that members can implement as a whole over State Patty’s Day weekend.

“We’re searching for that. We’re not exactly sure what that is,” he says.

But at the end of the day, Gastiger says, “We are united in purpose to see that event go away.”

Many other establishments have not announced their plans, however, talks are ongoing with the town-gown State Patty’s Day Task Force. The goal of the task force is ultimately to end the drinking event.

In 2007, Penn State students created State Patty’s Day as an alternative drinking celebration after learning St. Patrick’s Day fell during spring break. Since then, the event has created alcohol-related mayhem downtown.

In recent years there have been ongoing efforts between the university, borough, law enforcement and student groups to reduce rowdiness and crimes related to State Patty’s Day. And it appears those efforts were working.

Penn State Spokesman Bill Zimmerman and task force liaison, Penn State Police Chief Tyrone Parham and State College Police Chief Thomas King all say last year’s alcohol-free zone contributed significantly to the decline in incidents.

“(The task force) feels the continuation of this is crucial in maintaining safety on State Patty’s Day 2014,” Zimmerman says.

In 2013, borough and university police reported a 37 percent drop in arrests and citations compared to State Patty’s Day 2012.

“That by itself was huge and made a big difference and that’s really what resulted in this,” says King. “We felt that was necessary because that event got so out of control. If we don’t get a critical mass of those bars shutting down we’ll slide back on the improved numbers we saw last year.”

In 2013, arrests dropped to 46 from 106 the year prior. King says police saw less vandalism; fewer calls for service and fewer people transported to the hospital.

According to the Mount Nittany Medical Center, during the 2013 State Patty’s Day weekend, the emergency room saw 49 patients for alcohol-related events, the average alcohol level was 0.28, and the average age was 20. The hospital says 22 of the 49 patients were Penn State students.

Taxpayers ultimately end up paying for law enforcement services during State Patty’s Day. State College and Penn State police departments place all officers on-duty throughout the weekend through overtime shifts.

Additionally, outside agencies come to the borough to assist, including neighboring police departments, Liquor Control Enforcement officers, Pennsylvania State Police, code enforcement officers and the Centre County Alcohol Task Force, which consists of police officers from throughout the county.

“This isn’t only a police issue. We can’t enforce our way out of the problem. It’s really a community issue that the community has to help solve,” says King.

Parham says authorities will continue to follow a zero-tolerance policy for “volunteer drunks.”

“There are no warnings. If there’s anybody that’s doing anything wrong they will be charged for it, arrested for it,” Parham says.

Earlier this month, the State Patty’s Day Task Force kicked off what will be weekly meetings up until the drinking event. The task force hopes the figures will decline more this year.

Late last year, the Penn State Interfraternity Council banned fraternities and sororities from organizing social functions during the State Patty’s Day weekend. Instead, students from Greek-letter organizations are expected to participate in the State Day of Service, the annual student community service event coinciding with the drinking holiday.

Additionally, a diverse lineup of alternatives is taking shape. Residence Life and the Association of Residence Hall Students are planning a casino night, a dodge ball tournament and other activities; and multiple athletic events are set for the weekend, including men’s and women’s basketball games.

Other initiatives in the works:

– Borough ordinance enforcement officers will heavily monitor apartment complexes and neighborhood rental units for maximum occupancy requirements.

– Local court officials will be urged to again impose maximum fines during the weekend and immediately process out-of-town violators.

– The task force will request that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board again close its State College area Wine and Spirits stores during the weekend. Beer distributors will also be asked to close on State Patty’s Day.

– State College police, the Penn State Office of Student Conduct and the Off-Campus Student Union will reach out to students living off-campus, landlords and apartment managers in an effort to discourage partying on State Patty’s Day weekend.

– The fees in downtown parking garages will increase to football game day rates after the first three hours of parking at normal rates.

– The Alumni Association will again ask people to avoid the drinking holiday in emails and social media aimed at the alumni network.

– With State Patty’s Day attracting college students from throughout the state, administrators at other institutions will be asked to discourage participation and discipline any students who are arrested or cited in State College.

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