Strip clubs, gangsters, and the City Council: Party winds down (Part 3)
(Day 3 in a 3-Day Series)
Brandi Ansel turns to her entourage of bridesmaids and screams: "This party's just getting started!"
In a matter of days, she will walk down the aisle, but on this night, she's hoping to just walk a straight line.The bride-to-be started her bachelorette party across the river in Dubuque, and by 1:45 a.m. she is right where she always expected to be.
"I never thought of going anywhere else. You always go East," Ansel says. "I mean, who wants to go home at 2? We're just getting warmed up."
Some 200,000 vehicles drive across the Julien Dubuque bridge on a weekly basis. Each week, 3,000-plus of those vehicles turn and beeline toward the bars downtown.
They call it 'Going East' -- a decades-long battle cry for bar-goers. At 2 a.m., when the last call for alcohol is issued in Dubuque, people pour themselves into taxis, party busses and limos and head over to where the booze flows until 3:30 a.m.
It's just 90 minutes. But some say it makes all the difference in this town.
'THE RIGHT STEPS'
East Dubuque Mayor James Hanley thinks he made the right decision three years ago when he voted to enact a two-phase plan to shut down the town's bars at 2 a.m. (Bars will shut down at 3 a.m. beginning Saturday, May 1; the final phase will close them at 2 a.m. in May 2013.)
"I can see the difference (in our town's image), which is improving slowly but surely," he said.
Arrests in the downtown between midnight and 4 a.m. have decreased 10 percent since the ordinance was written, and where there used to be 15 bars in the downtown in 2001, there are now nine, city officials say.
New businesses have come in during that time, including a veterinary clinic, a state-of-the-art bank, an auto repair shop, a hair salon and now a proposed grocery store.
"We're making the right steps," Hanley said.
'NO REAL PLANS'
George Young points at one dilapidated building after another.
He has owned his East Dubuque tavern, George & Dale's Sports Bar & Grill, for 34 years and has seen businesses come and go.
"It seems like all they have been doing is just going," Young said.
Giggis -- gone. The Hang Out -- gone. The Arena -- empty. The Coliseum -- empty.Establishments that attracted thousands of people weekly now display oversized "For Rent" signs, and doors that once swung freely now remain clamped shut with padlocks as big as softballs.
"(City officials) say they don't want us to shut down, but I look at these places and wonder how they think it's going to be any different for us," he said. "They don't have any real plans. If they did, maybe I'd feel better."
"I can't tell you what the magic formula is," Hanley said. "I haven't really laid it out in that Step 1 is this, and Step 2 is this."
Instead, the mayor has a vision.
"I remember the downtown having bars, a grocery store, a hardware store, a drug store, a lumber yard," he said. "It used to be diverse, where the folks fully used their downtown. So when you talk about a vision for the downtown, that's one of the things people have said they'd like to see again."
The first step to attracting these businesses, he said, is reducing crime, which means reducing the later bar hours when a large portion of the town's crime occurs.
Additionally, he said, the city has worked to bring about more tourism events and attractions, like the downtown fireworks display, Wing Fest and more.
"If we could just get 10 percent of those people driving across that bridge, imagine what it would do," Hanley said.
The second part of his vision is attracting new business from within the community itself.
"I'm not saying we're going to get Dubuquers over here grocery shopping. I'm not that naïve," he said. "But I can't tell you how many times my wife has said she really doesn't want to run across the river for that gallon of milk."
'THAT'S WHAT WE'VE GOT'
Salon 150 owner Kathy Accola said she's sick of seeing empty buildings.
"I think we should support our bars, because that's what we've got," she said.
Tonia Steiner, who owns Splinter's Flowers and Gifts and also serves as president of the East Dubuque Business and Tourism Board, said she would hate to see the city lose the $35,743 the 3:30 a.m. bars brought to the city through sales tax receipts and license fees. She said she thinks that covers the $31,000 the city estimates it spends on part-time police officers and overtime cops.
Hanley said the issue is not so much the part-time officers, but rather the cost of full-time police, which runs about $63,000 annually for one. If crime decreases, Hanley foresees reducing the force through attrition. He said the liquor licenses and sales tax profits do not cover even one full-time officer.
Liberty Bank officials told the TH they located to the downtown because the location was closer to customers. They further said they welcome the profits brought to their business because of weekend ATM fees. City officials say former bank administration expressed appreciation of the ordinance.
Dr. Herbert Preiser, who opened the veterinary clinic, said he knew nothing of the ordinance when he moved to town, but that he relocated from the Chicago area because the building suited his needs.
Other downtown businesses either could not be reached or declined comment.
'NOBODY'S GOING TO LIKE IT'
On May 3, the East Dubuque City Council will determine whether it should rewrite the ordinance to extend the 3:30 a.m. closing time until December. By that time, tavern owners expect the state to provide gambling machines that some say could help offset profits that would be lost by closing earlier.
At least one City Council member said he regrets voting for the original ordinance.
"We have to ask (ourselves) how what we're doing is going to impact (the bar owners) who are staying here, struggling to survive," said Alderman Randy Degenhardt. "These people have their heart and soul in this, and I feel bad about it."
Alderman Dan Welp, who used to own a downtown East Dubuque bar, said he thinks the original ordinance will stand.
"You've got to put the needs of the 2,000 residents of the city before the needs of several individuals," he said. "I like these people. I still go to their bars, and I hope I'm welcome after this. Being on the council is being a referee. No matter what call you make, nobody's going to like it."
Mayor Hanley said the city has worked to help bar owners by passing other ordinances that allowed the taverns to open beer gardens and hold weekly antique car shows where alcohol can be consumed on the street.
"We want all of our businesses to succeed," Hanley said. "But where does it stop? We're not asking the bars to have a disadvantage. We're just asking them to compete evenly."
At 1 a.m., 20 people partied at The Other Side. By 2:15, it was filled to capacity. At 1:10 a.m., five people danced at The Cave. By 2:30, dancers struggled to find a spot on the dance floor. At 1:30 a.m., three people sipped beers at Looney Tunes. By 2:45, it, too, was standing room only.
"It's a crazy amount of money we make in those 90 minutes the city is telling us won't be a big deal," said Mike Meyer, owner of The Other Side.
By 3:15 a.m., bouncers and bartenders push customers onto the street. It's closing time, and the mass exodus begins. Then the retreat of red taillights ends, and by 3:35 a.m., downtown East Dubuque is empty.
"And," Meyer said, "it will stay this empty until next Friday."