O'Malley: Downtown woes have two ingredients: People and booze

Julia O'Malley
Fourth Avenue downtown is almost deserted on a weekday afternoon, unlike closing time in the early morning hours when the street scene gets rowdy. Business owners downtown are getting fed up paying to repair property damage they believe is caused by drunk bar patrons.
Bob Hallinen
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News Jana Hayenga stands in front of her Fourth Avenue business, Cabin Fever, where vandals have broken out windows. Downtown shop owners blame rowdy bar patrons for costly damage to their property.
Bob Hallinen
Photos by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News Business owners have felt the brunt of the downtown bar scene. Deborah Seaton stands inside her business, Side Street Espresso, on G Street downtown, where vandals broke a large window in the front of her store and a window in the store next door.
Bob Hallinen

Which story about intoxicated people behaving badly at night in downtown Anchorage do I tell you first? I have a notebook full of them. Pick any street that intersects with Fourth Avenue. Go inside a business and ask. The stories go on for hours. Take G Street, where I spent part of Wednesday.

Jose Martignon, general manager of Sacks Cafe, which sits in the middle of the block between Fourth and Fifth, told me the neighborhood "turns into a madhouse" as the clock ticks toward bar break on weekends. His story happened maybe six weeks ago just after midnight. He was outside in the parking lot that backs up to Sacks, the Gaslight Lounge, and the Pioneer Bar, where all manner of trouble seems to start.

"I heard this woman screaming," he said.

He followed what he heard and discovered a man forcing a woman into a car.

"I said, 'Hey, leave her alone!' He got in the car and started driving," Martignon told me. "The lady opened the door and threw herself out of the car."

Another onlooker called the police. The man's car disappeared.

"She was all beat up. She was bleeding," Jose said. "I pick her up and bring her into Sacks. (The guy) was trying to take her away, he was trying to abduct her."

I'd written earlier about a night I spent with a police officer as he patrolled Fourth Avenue. We spent a lot of time on a stretch between G Street and H, where the Anchor Pub & Club, the Gaslight Lounge and the Pioneer Bar have become a popular nighttime draw for 20-somethings. That section turns from placid business district to rowdy party scene at night, especially as bars close. Police say they can't keep up with the mayhem.

After the column ran I heard from businesses nearby, saying they wanted to talk. Lots of them have paid thousands of dollars to repair damage from vandals they suspect are mostly bar patrons They told me expensive problems are escalating and they want something to change. They don't mind having bars nearby but they suspect these bars are serving patrons who are already drunk and things tend to get out of control. Restaurants that serve alcohol in the neighborhood seem to be held to a higher standard.

Romney Dodd, who owns the boutique G Street Fox, has replaced three windows since Thanksgiving. Like other businesses on the block, this was an expense that wasn't covered by insurance. Two were broken around the time the bars closed, when a drunken fight collided with her building.

"There was a body thrown into the window. You could see the head and the shoulders," she said.

"It's just so disrespectful and repulsive I don't know what else to say about it."

Side Street Espresso has replaced two windows in the last 15 months. Cabin Fever gift shop lost a door. At Trapper Jack's Trading Post gift shop, they've spent at least $8,000 in the last year fixing broken glass.

"I have constant concerns about the safety of my staff, and just the property damage is excessive," side Ina Coleman, the store manager.

At Artique, the gallery next door to Sacks, there's a bullet hole (now about 4 years old) in the drywall above the employee toilet. The shot went through the glass in front, pierced a spendy painting and landed on the bathroom floor, said Bobbie Bianchi, a longtime employee.

Bianchi was downtown one night last summer when the bars let out.

"It was like someone had pulled all the fire alarms in downtown Anchorage," she said.

OK, so it's a madhouse. The business owners are fed up. The police are fed up. What do the bars have to say?

John Pattee, who owns the Gaslight, says the neighbors' feeling that problems downtown are escalating is based on anecdotal evidence and a couple of recent high-profile incidents like the homicide outside Platinum Jaxx last fall. No one was ever charged.

"I think their perception is being told to them. I mean I've been in the bar business 30 years, and it's better than it was 30 years ago, believe me," he said. "People are being told there's a problem down there that it's out of control. I don't think it's any more out of control than it's always been."

Pattee said he recently started a cover charge that makes it harder for people to leave the bar to drink in their cars and then return. His people sweep the sidewalk after the bar closes, and he watches patrons come and go with video cameras. He'd like to see the Assembly pass an ordinance that lets the bars stay open longer without serving alcohol so people don't flood the street. He said he'd also like to see more police or some other kind of private security downtown.

Bobby Bunn is assistant general manager at the Anchor, the largest bar on the street with a capacity near 500. He's had the job two months but he's worked in bars for years. Anchorage bargoers are wild, he told me. The problems he sees have two ingredients: people and alcohol.

"People here are crazy, and there's a complete and total lack of representation by APD," he said.

When his bar calls police they take forever to show up, he said. He didn't deny that some bar patrons probably cause problems in the neighborhood. He said it's not fair to blame it on the bar.

"You're talking about 1,000 people (coming out of the bars) on a busy night that are intoxicated," he said. "So it's one of those nature-of-the-beast thing where it's not fun, I understand, but there's not much you can do to change it unless you get rid of bars."

Bunn said he's recently told servers to try to slow alcohol consumption by making patrons wait 15 minutes between shots. He's also had the bar quit serving a little early so people trickle out.

The owners of the Pioneer Bar are out of town and weren't available to talk for this column.

I checked with APD about police downtown. Usually the department has at least four officers assigned to the area at night, according to Capt. Bill Miller, who is in charge of patrol. There can be more depending on the time of the shift and what else is going on. That's more police coverage than many other parts of town.

"Here's the point: It's overservice," he said, meaning the bars are serving patrons who are already too intoxicated, and that's leading to problems. "If you take a look at other bars, you don't see that number of officers having to be deployed to clean up the mess that's caused by the people that are down there."

Chris Schutte with the Downtown Partnership manages "security ambassadors" who patrol the streets during the day. He keeps statistics on what they observe. Violent/destructive late-night behavior does seem to be happening lately, he said, but he wasn't sure it was all coming from people who are using alcohol. He suspects spice, a synthetic drug sold in Anchorage as incense.

"I'm not entirely convinced these are drunk people," he said. "Having witnessed what people do when they are on spice and how unpredictable and psychotic they can become, this behavior seems more in keeping with that."

Over at Darwin's Theory, a bar the neighbors tend not to complain about, Dalena Small, who works there, told me she watched a guy punch out the front window a couple weeks ago. It was well before the bars let out, she said. She followed him down the street, she said. She's seen her share of drunks but he did not seem drunk, she said.

"He had a crazy look in his eyes," she said.

The 20-somethings who come downtown are different than they used to be, she said. First of all, she said, there are way more of them. They seem to use harder drugs. They seem more volatile.

Maybe the kids are different, and maybe the drugs are different, and maybe that's part of the problem downtown but I'm going Occam's Razor on this one: The simplest explanation is probably the best. And the simplest explanation is alcohol. Too much of it.

People will say that's a personal responsibility issue. That a bar isn't responsible for someone being drunk, but that's not the way the law works here. Bars are responsible under the law. And there's a reason for that: They're making the money, while, at least in this case, everybody else pays.





Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

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