CHAMPAIGN – The last call for drinks at bars and taverns could soon be extended in Champaign, and Urbana council members say their city might quickly follow suit if Champaign acts.
The Champaign City Council will consider at its meeting next Tuesday a proposal to extend alcohol sales from the current 1 a.m. cutoff to 2 a.m., or even 2:30 a.m.
Council members also will consider whether to have the extended hours for alcohol sales on just Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, or all week long.
Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart said he thinks the council will agree to extend alcohol sales until 2 a.m. for Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and New Year's Eve, and to allow patrons to remain in bars until 2:30 a.m. Schweighart supports both of those ideas.
Schweighart said the city was asked to extend the drinking hours last spring by downtown bar owners to accommodate Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, where the final film showing often extends past midnight.
More recently, the mayor was approached again by bar owners who want extended hours to accommodate out-of-town visitors attending University of Illinois football games.
"Champaign used to close up by 10 o'clock," Schweighart said. "Now a lot of people don't come out until 10 o'clock. Out of all the schools in the Big Ten, we have the earliest closing hours."
Schweighart said offering extended bar hours could discourage after-hours parties by UI students and probably would make it more profitable for bars to offer live entertainment.
After-hours parties in private homes and apartments "tend to be more of a problem for police than the bars," he said.
The city's Liquor Advisory Commission actually recommended a 2:30 a.m. shutoff of alcohol sales at bars, a 3 a.m. bar closing requirement and extending the hours all week long. The nine-member advisory panel includes six representatives who hold city liquor licenses.
However, city staff is recommending a 2 a.m. alcohol sales cutoff and only allowing it for Thursday, Friday and Saturdays, and requiring bars to close by 2:30 a.m.
Champaign Assistant City Manager Paul Berg said the staff recommendation was made to be conservative and at the urging of city police, who have concerns that keeping an eye on the bars could consume the duties of the overnight shift.
The change in serving and closing hours would take effect upon council passage and signing of the council bill by Schweighart, which he said he would do on Aug. 20.
Champaign council member Tom Bruno agreed with the mayor that a 2 a.m. closing time three nights a week appears to have majority support on the council.
But Bruno said he's willing to consider the more liberal recommendations of the Liquor Advisory Commission.
"I think it's been a long time since we established the 1 a.m. closing time, and society has changed a great deal since that time," he said. "When I was 21, television stations played the national anthem at 12:30 a.m. and everything went dark, including the grocery stores. For us to tell a business we must close their doors because we want to go to bed, I don't think there's a sufficiently compelling governmental reason."
Bruno said he personally believes later alcohol sales and bar closing times will lead to fewer problems for police.
"When the bar is most shoulder-to-shoulder packed, we summon law enforcement and make them all leave," he said, speaking about Campustown bars. "It's no wonder it's a stressful event. It's a completely artificial closing time."
Meanwhile, in Urbana, aldermen appear ready to follow Champaign's lead, placing the topic of extending hours for alcohol sales at bars on the agenda of the Aug. 25 council committee of the whole meeting.
At Monday's meeting, two Urbana bar representatives asked that they be allowed to extend their alcohol serving hours if Champaign makes such a move.
Ian Goldberg, program director at The Canopy Club, 708 S. Goodwin Ave., said his business is concerned about the "competitive advantage" Champaign bars would enjoy if Urbana doesn't act. "I would hope the city of Urbana would follow suit," he said. "It could set us up (at a disadvantage) for a whole year. Peoples' habits are hard to break."
Scott Glassman, owner of the Crane Alley bar and restaurant, which will open in downtown Urbana within the next week, said he also wants Urbana to follow Champaign's lead.
"If they can stay (in Champaign) until 2 a.m., they might not even make the trip to Urbana altogether," he warned.
After the meeting, three Urbana council members said they're prepared to extend the hours for alcohol sales at bars .
"If Champaign's doing it, I think Urbana should, too," said Esther Patt, D-Ward 1. "I don't know that it will reduce after-hour parties, but many of my constituents would like to do something about after-hour parties."
"Remaining competitive is critical, especially as Urbana moves ahead with implementing its downtown plan," said Laura Huth, D-Ward 5. "We have lots of good things happening downtown right now, and I support this to ensure these new and expanding businesses thrive."
"It doesn't make sense to have different bar closing hours," agreed Ruth Wyman, D-Ward 2.
But not all bar owners said they are thrilled about the chance to stay open later.
Bob Osiek, part-owner of the Esquire Lounge, 106 N. Walnut St., C, said he has "never been a fan of closing beyond 1 a.m."
"This is a productive community and a lot of employees have day jobs," he said. "I think it would be a sad thing to get into a situation where all the bartenders have to be bartenders only."
But Osiek said he wouldn't have a problem with extending hours for just three weekend days, as the Champaign council is considering.
John Messman, owner of Tod & John's, 201 N. Broadway Ave., U, said his bar is already open from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m. every night and doesn't need another hour of business and the problems finding people to staff it. But he also said he probably would have little choice but to extend his hours to remain competitive.
"I don't know how good of an idea it is," Messman said. "In Champaign, it seems like the pot of gold (the downtown entertainment district) is cranking, so let's keep it going."
You can reach Mike Monson at (217) 351-5370 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.