21-only ordinance will stay in Iowa City

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IOWA CITY — Black cloth partially covered the front window of Sports Column, an apt symbol for what had to be the dour mood inside.

The downtown bar served as the election night headquarters for opponents of Iowa City’s 21-only ordinance, and the drapes were used to shield the people inside from the news media.

Voters upheld the law by a 1,397-vote margin, 52 percent to 48 percent, in Tuesday’s election, according to preliminary results from the Johnson County Auditor’s Office.

The tight outcome was a big defeat for opponents of the measure, including bar owners and many college students. They had sought to repeal the City Council-approved ordinance, which if successful would have allowed 19- and 20-year-olds back in Iowa City bars after 10 p.m.

Instead, non-exempt establishments with liquor licenses will continue to be 21-and-older at night, as they have been since the ordinance went in effect June 1.

“I thought it would be a close election, we all did from day one,” said Leah Cohen, owner of Bo-James restaurant and bar. “The townspeople spoke.”

Even 21-only supporters qualified their pre-election mood as “cautiously optimistic.” And about 30 of them gathered at Bob’s Your Uncle restaurant roared with joy when outcome became evident.

“This is a significant step forward for the community,” Mayor Matt Hayek said.

Just three years ago, Iowa City voters rejected a 21-only measure 58 percent to 42 percent, backed by strong student turnout. Iowa City set a record turnout for a city election in 2007, with 15,728 votes cast. On Tuesday, 28,847 people voted on the 21-only question.

The results are unofficial until the canvass of votes by the county’s supervisors Nov. 9.

Tuesday’s results indicate enough of the greater community was sick of the pre-21-only status quo in a college town where problem drinking has long been an issue.

Opponents claimed the 21-only law would push drinking to house parties, which they said are less safe than bars, and would hurt the downtown economy.

“There’s going to be half a dozen to a dozen bars and some restaurants closed in six months,” said Matt Pfaltzgraf, an University of Iowa student and campaign manager for Yes to Entertaining Students Safely. “The pro-21 side might be celebrating tonight, but tomorrow they have to figure out what to do with thousands and thousands and thousands of square feet that will be available.”

Supporters of the law said it has already had a positive effect on public safety, showing drops in several alcohol-related offenses tracked by Iowa City police.

But even that was not clear cut in this contentious debate, with opponents noting that when UI police statistics were added, there was actually a slight increase in crime.

The true effects of the ordinance probably will take more than a few months to sort out. It is a major change for the community that could impact everything from binge-drinking rates to the downtown economy to educational goals.

Council member and 21-only backer Susan Mims said the city and UI will not rest at addressing problem drinking.

“It is the first step of many,” she said of 21-only. “We’ve got to get some other venues up for entertaining students. We’ve got to continue education.”

Cohen said the election has caused a big divide among business leaders, among community leaders. Now that it is over, people can come together and realistically look at things. She extends her hand in congratulations to the other side.

Pfaltzgraf was less conciliatory.

“This election was dictated by people who do not come downtown,” he said. “Unfortunately, anger beat logic in this election. People wanted to blame somebody and they chose downtown.”

The issue cannot be voted on again for at least two years.

Cohen said the future of downtown will be put more in the hands of city leaders because downtown will change. If the issue is brought to voters again, it won’t be so much bar owners supporting the repeal because there won’t be as many, she said.

Meredith Hines-Dochterman contributed to this report.

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