IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — University of Iowa freshman Grant Spading and his co-workers have been all over campus in recent days making an easy sell: asking students to vote to let underage patrons back in Iowa City bars at peak drinking hours.
Their employer, the Union Bar, is a driving force behind a ballot measure Tuesday seeking to repeal a 3-year-old city ordinance that requires 19- and 20-year-olds to leave bars by 10 p.m. Bar owner George Wittgraf said the election could be the last chance for the city to restore what he called a fairer and more fun bar scene for young people.
But city and university leaders say the ballot measure is really an attempt by a handful of bars to again profit from underage drinking. They are waging a campaign to save the ordinance approved by the City Council, saying it has quickly proven to be an effective curb on high-risk drinking.
Since the ordinance was enacted, some of the largest bars have closed. Restaurants, clothing stores and businesses have opened in their place. Binge drinking rates among university students have started to decline. And city police statistics show dramatic drops in calls reporting downtown disturbances, criminal mischief and fights in 2012 compared with 2009.
"Downtown and near campus areas have benefited from remarkable improvements in safety, reductions in crime. The downtown area is now more vibrant and better balanced," said Mayor Matt Hayek, who is leading a "vote no" campaign. "An out-of-control situation has been moderated."
Hayek said the ordinance will be repealed if residents of the 60,000-population city do not vote in decent numbers Tuesday. He watched nervously in recent weeks as supporters of the repeal campaign accumulated votes at campus early voting locations.
Wittgraf and the general manager of the bar next door, Martini's, gathered more than 2,500 signatures earlier this year to trigger the vote. Disclosure reports show money for the repeal campaign has come from their bars and a third, Player's.
Bar employees such as Spading have handed out fliers near voting places at the Old Capitol Mall, the recreation center and dormitories. More than 2,000 people voted early at those locations, giving their side an advantage in a low-turnout election that the mayor said might draw only 6,000 voters.
College towns across the U.S. have varying minimum ages, from 18 to 21, for bars and night clubs. Public health advocates have long argued for limiting access, saying that allowing underage patrons makes alcohol too easily available and encourages binge drinking.
Before 2010, Iowa City bars for years had allowed entrance to anyone 19 or older. The number of downtown bars spiked to more than 50 as they became a destination for University of Iowa students and those from cities such as Cedar Rapids and Davenport.
Advocates petitioned for a measure requiring bar customers to be 21 in 2007, but voters overwhelmingly rejected it.
The City Council adopted the current ordinance in 2010, which makes exemptions for bars that feature entertainment such as live music and businesses that bring in majority of their money from food.
Bar owners led an effort to repeal the ordinance months after it took effect in 2010, but a narrow majority of voters favored keeping it. Soon, large bars such as Vito's and One Eyed Jake's closed.
Critics argue that limiting entrance into bars pushes drinking to unregulated house parties that are far more dangerous, or leaves them with nothing to do at 10 p.m. They say the restriction makes it difficult to go out in a group of mixed ages.
"I'm 21, but a lot of my friends are 19 and 20. It sucks not to be able to go out with them," said Caroline Allen, a junior studying English. She said the atmosphere in bars is "more relaxed and safer" than at house parties.
While students appear to overwhelmingly support repeal, they are less unanimous than they were in prior elections. The student newspaper and some student government leaders have endorsed the current ordinance, which requires underage students to leave the bars by 10 p.m. or possibly be ticketed for staying.
The mayor noted that many more downtown business leaders and bars supported the 2010 repeal effort but most aren't involved this time. A group representing downtown businesses has endorsed the ordinance.
Supporters of the ordinance say house parties have not become a bigger problem, as many feared when it passed in 2010. They point to police data showing a decline in disorderly house arrests.
Wittgraf said it has been harder for his side to motivate students than in prior elections. He said few remember how the bars used to be before the change went into effect, and no longer expect to be able to get in at 19.
"Many of them don't know what they're voting for," he said. "Not many people remember the bars and how much more fun they can be."
If the ordinance is repealed, a city rule says the council could not change the bar-admittance age back to 21 for at least two years.
Rick Dobyns, a City Council member who has long supported the older cutoff, said he hopes city residents put a decade-long debate behind them Tuesday by upholding the ordinance.
"The farther away we get from when the ordinance was turned to 21, the harder it will be to overturn it. That's why I knew the bar owners would strike now," he said. "This might be their last, best chance."