The people you see in the middle of the night in downtown Anchorage have changed with the decades, says Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew.
"It was more of a slinky crowd that hung out in the shadows, 20 years ago," Mew, who walked a foot patrol downtown as a rookie officer, told members of the Anchorage Assembly on Friday. Back then he encountered blue-collar types, he said. Guys who worked to build the trans-Alaska pipeline, and the occasional drug dealer.
"Now it's like Disneyland for young adults down there. It's a frat party," Mew said.
Police and some bar owners and Assembly members agree: There is a growing chaos that hits downtown when bars close at 3 a.m. weekend evenings and drunken crowds spill into the streets. The unsolved fatal shooting of a man outside Platinum Jaxx, just before closing time on Oct. 28, punctuated the problem.
What to do about it? That's where the consensus ends.
The public is invited to join the debate Tuesday at a public hearing on a proposal that would make last call an hour earlier at the area's largest bars. If the measure is approved, alcohol sales would be cut off at 1:30 a.m. on weeknights instead of at 2:30 a.m. under current city law. On weekends, liquor sales would end at 2 a.m. rather than 3 a.m.
Proposed by downtown Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, the idea is to stagger the flow of people leaving taverns and dance floors, creating a kind of release valve for the liquor-fueled, curbside tensions that Anchorage Press columnist Mike Dingman recently dubbed "Barmaggedon." Flynn's plan also calls for bars to turn music off and stop live bands from playing half an hour before closing. The goal is to prevent sexual assault, drunken driving and other crime, he argues.
The Anchorage liquor lobby has pushed back, calling for more police officers downtown instead shortened serving hours.
"It's going to push the same number of people on to the street, whether it's 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock. I don't see what difference that makes," Platinum Jaxx owner and general manager Jess Hepper told Assembly members.
Rather than lose an hour of sales, bars should be allowed to continue serving until 3 a.m. or later on weekends, owners say. Some bars could remain open for an hour after they stop selling alcohol, however, allowing customers time to sober up on coffee and breakfast as they wait for cabs.
"The whole point is to create a trickle effect. You won't have so many people on the streets at one time," said Ivan Ramos, president of the Anchorage Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer's Association.
Bar owners, the police chief and representatives of Holy Family Cathedral, a downtown church beleaguered by drunks, discussed the issue Friday at City Hall ahead of Tuesday's regular Assembly meeting.
For nearly everyone involved, the debate has a familiar ring.
Under state law, a licensed business can sell alcohol until 5 a.m. unless cities opt to enforce shortened hours.
Bar owners have interpreted current Anchorage rules to mean customers must leave the bar by 2:30 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends and, as a result, rush people out the door, then-Assemblywoman Anna Fairclough wrote in 2004.
Fairclough proposed a measure that year that would have allowed bars to stay open an hour after closing as long as no one was buying or drinking alcohol. The proposal followed a reported spike in sexual assaults, though supporters said it also would have reduced large crowds roaming the streets at closing time.
"Instead of being forced to wait for a taxi or ride in the middle of a dark, empty, frozen parking lot, a patron would be permitted to wait inside a bar safe from the elements and violent crimes," Fairclough wrote in support of the plan.
The Assembly killed the proposal a month after it was introduced.
The idea of this so-called "safety hour" resurfaced in 2009. The Fairclough proposal had met with resistance from nightclub owners who said it would be difficult to take customers' drinks away while still allowing them to stay at the bar, Flynn wrote on his blog at the time.
John Pattee, then president of the Anchorage CHARR, approached Flynn asking him to sponsor a different proposal that would allow customers to finish their last drink during the "safe hour," Flynn wrote.
That measure failed too.
Flynn made his latest proposal in December, arguing that the biggest bars were all releasing crowds on to the street at the same time, with too few cabs around to take everyone home before problems started.
The new proposal targets downtown bars with a capacity of 125 people. That includes Platinum Jaxx, Humpy's, the Anchor Pub, the Avenue Bar, the Gaslight Lounge and the Pioneer Bar, among others, Flynn has said.
Flynn wrote that the concentration of bars downtown would make the area a good testing ground for shortened bar hours. Chilkoot Charlie's owner Mike Gordon, whose Spenard bar sits outside the area affected, said he is concerned the new hours would then spread across the city.
"When the (safe hour) proposal was made by CHARR (in 2009), I have to admit that I wasn't very much in favor of it," Gordon said. "I didn't particularly like the idea of baby-sitting all these people after closing. It was going to be a little costly. It's going to be a bit of a problem. But certainly, faced with what Mr. Flynn is suggesting, I would take that option."
ENABLING BAD BEHAVIOR?
Bar owners labeled the new proposal an excessive, "buckshot approach" at a Wednesday meeting of the Assembly public safety committee, committee chairman Paul Honeman said.
The industry said more police are necessary downtown between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. and talked about bars helping to pay the cost of additional officers with a grant funneled through CHARR or the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Honeman said.
Hepper, the Platinum Jaxx owner, said Friday that shorter serving hours at some bars might encourage drunken driving. "Now you've got an hour window in which you could go to 'Koots, in which you could go to any of the smaller bars," he said.
Hepper said he recently drove by each of the downtown bars at about 2:30 a.m. and saw only two police officers.
Mew, the police chief, said the department paid overtime to increase downtown patrols during the summer.
"We try and go where the problems are," he said to the Assembly. "But are we just enabling bad behavior by being there to take the consequences away from folks that want to liquor everybody up, throw them out the door and make them the police department's problem?"
Mew said the department apparently had concerns about the 2009 attempt to create a "safe hour" at bars because it could be difficult to enforce if customers were allowed to finish their drinks. Officers arriving at the businesses would have no way of knowing if someone ordered his drink before or after the legal cutoff.
Holy Family Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and H Street sits near one of the last-call hot spots. Priests and brothers live year round at the Catholic church, said Jim Crittenden, chairman of the church safety committee. Within a few blocks are Platinum Jaxx, the Inlet Inn, a liquor store and the downtown transit center.
It's a "war zone," Crittenden said. "The current bar closing hours creates a toxic environment for anyone who is unfortunate enough to find themselves in the downtown area during this time."
Crittenden said the church group supports Flynn's proposal but added there is likely room for compromise of the kind proposed by bar owners, with businesses allowed to stay open and serve non-alcoholic drinks as people filter out.
"The key to this whole thing is not letting everybody just leave the bars at one time and enter the streets," he said.