Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lafayette bought into consolidation and downtown nightlife. Now we’re having second thoughts.  By Walter Pierce

It’s fair to say our hamlet is suffering from buyer’s remorse for a pair of purchases we made in the ’90s.

Consolidation seemed like a steal in 1992 when city residents sealed the deal by overwhelmingly voting for it. In ’97, the commencement of the multi-million dollar StreetScape project paved the way for a vibrant arts and cultural district. As nightclubs began to move into long-abandoned buildings and sales tax revenue climbed, we patted ourselves on the back while humming kumbaya.

Those purchases are teenagers now, and they’re causing us grief. A charter commission meets on Mondays, trying to diagnose why consolidation isn’t working as expected and what to do about it. And city fathers are wringing their hands about the crush of humanity — and the trash, petty crime and randy young people — on Jefferson Street during weekends.

It was a case of strange bedfellows last Tuesday when the City-Parish Council voted 5-4 against an ordinance that would have banned open alcohol containers downtown and on the Simcoe and McKinley strips. Jared Bellard and William Theriot, arguably the most conservative Republicans on the council, joined Democrats Purvis Morrison, Brandon Shelvin and Kenneth Boudreaux in quashing the ordinance. Theriot and especially Bellard have off and on been at odds with the administration mainly over budget priorities — so sticking it to Joey Durel was evidently sufficient salve for voting with their ideological foils.

The administration was right to pull a related ordinance — banning cruising — after the go cup measure failed. It, too, would have died.

The go cup ban wasn’t just a broadside against ambulatory alcohol; it was also meant to address the sizable percentage of people downtown on a Saturday night who aren’t bar-hoppers — people who drive downtown with alcohol in order to hang out and drink. I know this is true because Police Chief Jim Craft says it is. Plus, we do little well in Louisiana, but hanging out and drinking is one of them.

If the elders really want to reduce the population downtown, they should just cut to the chase and prohibit people under 21 years old from getting into bars, coupled with an ordinance banning loitering — get thee into a bar, and if you’re not old enough to enter, get thee the hell out of here. At least two bars already do — Marley’s and Legends, which are adjacent to one another on the 400 block of Jefferson — and they seem to enjoy brisk business.

Banning the under-21s from bars poses an assumed risk — namely that the newly disenfranchised will drive to bars outside of Lafayette. Some will, but many won’t.

There are volumes of evidence — empirical, peer-reviewed data — showing that a minimum legal drinking age of 21 reduces not only the rates of drunk driving and auto accidents among the under-21 set, but reduces the rate of alcohol consumption altogether. After the 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971 giving 18-year-olds the right to vote, nearly 30 states lowered their MLDA to 18, 19 or 20, occasioning a marked rise in alcohol-related crashes involving that age group. The data prompted Congress to pass the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, which Louisiana mockingly accepted by adding a loophole — allowing 18 to 20-year-olds to still get into bars — big enough to accommodate a beer pong tournament.

But this isn’t about drinking and driving; it’s about thinning the crowds downtown, and if the council doesn’t have the will to pass a measly ordinance banning go cups, can we imagine it taking the more surgical step of banning kids under 21 from entering bars?

Don’t hold your breath.

That plastic cups generated so much public comment and well over an hour of council debate borders on farce. Our community faces some pressing issues, yet banning open alcohol containers generated the most civic participation we’ve seen in months.

Priorities, people!

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