Solutions sought for after-bar problems downtown
By Barbara Martin
Last call and broken glass sometimes are synonymous in downtown Stevens Point, where closing time at the local bars means turning crowds of drunken and sometimes rowdy patrons out onto Main Street.
Stepped-up police patrols in the fall curbed some of the after-hours vandalism and rowdiness, but some business owners and nearby residents maintain that more needs to be done to head off a growing perception that the city's downtown is unsafe.
"The vandalism downtown is a real problem," said Ann Kulinski, owner of Carousel Candy and a member of the Association of Downtown Businesses. "Usually, it's the fights that cause broken windows."
Broken windows are only part of the problem. Shopkeepers report they routinely find broken beer bottles, crushed glasses and vomit on the sidewalks outside of their businesses. Police investigate dozens of reports of vandalism every year.
The Association of Downtown Businesses has a couple of committees looking at ways to address the vandalism problems, Kulinski said. The group's ideas include planning events to draw people to the downtown area throughout the evening, she said. Most of the crowds -- and the resulting problems -- are downtown after 10:30 p.m., she said.
Bar owners could lessen the amount of broken glass if they stopped customers from removing beer bottles and glasses from their businesses, Police Chief Doug Carpenter said. If they can't do that, he said, they can sell alcohol in shatterproof containers.
"As a police department, we would like to see those establishments work with us better than they are," he said.
Several bar owners contacted to discuss downtown vandalism declined to comment.
In response to business owners' concerns, the Stevens Point Police Department stepped up its enforcement in September. Two officers patrolled downtown on foot Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Another officer was assigned to a "response car," where the officers on foot patrol took anyone found acting disorderly, intoxicated or urinating in public. The fourth member of the team supervised the operation.
"Clearly, as a result of that stepped-up enforcement, we knew we had a problem with people urinating in public," Carpenter said. "We had some fights, some rowdiness."
Police arrested many people for having open alcohol on the public sidewalks, he said. After four or five weekends of increased police presence, things improved, he said.
"People get very much aware that they're going to get a ticket for having that alcoholic beverage on the open sidewalk," he said.
Stepping up downtown patrols was a temporary measure. It is expensive to pay four employees overtime to work the extra patrol, Carpenter said. Colder weather generally helps reduce the number of people hanging around and problems downtown, he said. The stepped-up enforcement will resume in spring, he said.
The increased police presence helped, but it isn't enough, some business owners said.
"The bar owners have a responsibility not to let open intoxicants and beer bottles out," said Bob Butt, owner of Divepoint Scuba Center. In May, someone shattered Divepoint's window and stole rock-climbing equipment valued at more than $600. Butt said he plans to install a video surveillance system.
When the bars close for the night, owners need to do more than just push their customers out the doors, Butt said. They need to make sure the customers go on their way and leave the area without taking open alcohol with them, he said.
Other business owners agree.
"I think the policing of kids after bar time is something that should be stepped up a little," said L'Aura DiSalvo, owner of Living Spirit Books. "I would like to see more policing of the street, and that doesn't necessarily mean the city."
Owners need to take a bigger role in sweeping the street and keeping it clear of broken glass and graffiti, she said.
Kulinski said many business owners don't view their relationship with the bar owners as adversarial. However, the bars are not represented on the downtown association, she said.
Several people raised concerns about downtown safety during a recent meeting to discuss concepts for the business district's direction. Ideas presented at that public meeting include creating new kiosks for advertising fliers, additional trees and lighting, new sidewalk benches and other measures to beautify the downtown.
Carpenter said the perception that downtown Stevens Point is unsafe is inaccurate. The stepped-up enforcement proved that, he said.
However, he said, the police department must be responsive to residents and business owners' concerns. Officers also must be careful not to "over enforce" the law. Simply the presence of police officers or a squad car is enough to keep many people from mischief, he said.
Kulinski agreed. She said she would like to see that police presence more often downtown.
"We realize there are other things they need to do," she said, "but all it takes is a couple of drive-throughs or one walk-by."
Martin can be reached at 344-6100, Ext. 2517, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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