The Biggest Nightclub in Town?

U of M officials say all-ages bar nights send "the wrong message"--unless, of course, they make money for the school

These are strange days indeed. Karl Malone, arguably one of the dirtiest players in the NBA, is featured in a public-service announcement condemning violence. Philip Morris pays for anti-smoking commercials. And now local anti-teen-drinking activists are finding themselves fighting the University of Minnesota--and joining forces with the liquor lobby.

"We support mandatory compliance checks and stringent penalties for selling to minors, so normally we're at odds with the alcohol industry," observes Jaime Martinez, co-founder of Action on Alcohol and Teens. "So on this issue you can imagine how surprised we are to be in agreement with the bar owners. But they're right. The university should not use alcohol to achieve their financial goals."

Jim Farrell, executive director of Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association--a group representing businesses that have liquor licenses--echoes the sentiment. "They're a nonprofit who will profit from selling booze," he maintains. "All of a sudden Northrop Auditorium is going to be the largest nightclub in the state."

The target of Farrell's and Martinez's ire is a decision by U of M administrators to begin serving drinks at Northrop Auditorium, the largest on-campus concert venue. Under a plan approved by the Board of Regents earlier this month, Lancer Food Service, the contract caterer for Northrop events, will provide beer and wine while university police will be in charge of enforcing drinking laws. Administrators predict that the sales will generate around $100,000 in annual revenue, which will be used to help finance bonds needed for a $20 million renovation of Northrop.

Not all regents were happy with the idea. "The majority of the students we cater to at this university are under the age of 21," explains regent Warren Larson, who voted against the proposal. "And selling alcohol, even for all the right reasons, sends the wrong message." Regent Robert Bergland, who voted yes, notes, "I don't think any of my colleagues were particularly happy with the idea. But this is a pilot program. If there are any troubles with underage drinking, we'll pull the plug immediately. We'll be spending a considerable amount of money to remodel Northrop. In order to justify that sort of investment, we have to do anything that is reasonable to generate revenue."

But to Cabooze general manager Jim Brown and O'Gara's Bar and Grill co-owner Danny O'Gara, that explanation sounds hypocritical. In opposing the dispensation of liquor on campus, the bar owners say, they're only following the lead of the university's own high-profile campaign against substance abuse among students.

In June 1998 the two bar owners, along with Pat Fleury, president of the St. Paul Hospitality Association, agreed to attend a community meeting sponsored by the school's Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Task Force. Representatives from the Minneapolis Police Department, the University Police, and a number of neighborhood organizations were also present.

Amelious Whyte, coordinator for chemical health programs at the U's Boynton Health Service, says he and fellow task force member Traci Toomey, an assistant professor in the U's School of Public Health, organized the summit to discuss a number of alcohol-related issues. "We talked about checking IDs. We talked about the danger of drink specials. We talked about not serving intoxicated customers," Whyte recalls. "And we talked about all-ages nights. But I didn't leave that meeting with the feeling that anyone had made a firm commitment to do anything."

Fleury, O'Gara, and Brown remember things differently. They say Toomey and Whyte produced data convincing them to ban all-ages events from their establishments. "They had really done their homework," Fleury says. "And it was a convincing argument: That in an all-ages environment, minors are going to get alcohol; that you could never be 100 percent compliant. So we took a look at the situation and said, 'Y'know, let's do this. It's the right thing to do. Even if it means losing money, we want to work with the university and the community.' So we stopped scheduling all-ages events."

Fleury says he was stunned when he learned, last spring, that university officials were lobbying the state Legislature for an exception to a state law that prohibits the sale of alcohol within one-tenth of a mile of the university's main administrative building. He was even more surprised when the bill passed without any objection from the U's health task force. When the matter made its way to the regents, he confronted Whyte and Toomey: "I asked them if they would stand up and testify against this," he recalls. "And they wouldn't do it. Whyte said it wasn't his position to do so. Toomey told me she could not do it because it was already a done deal. And I told them, 'Your credibility with my industry and me is zero.'"

Toomey, who says she's "not crazy about this thing," confirms that she figured the Northrop plan couldn't be stopped. Whyte says he didn't lobby the regents because he's more concerned with other issues, such as fake IDs and bar promotions like ladies' nights. "It would be different if we were opening a bar on campus," Whyte argues. "But I don't think selling alcohol at Northrop necessarily contradicts the work I've been doing. I worry more about an ad I saw in the school newspaper the other day advertising a beer-bong contest at Tropix."

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