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In our opinion: 'No' to corner bars

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Aerial view of Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 5, 2011. The City Council is currently voting on allowing neighborhood bars to move to Salt Lake City.

Ravell Call, Deseret News, KSL-TV Chopper 5

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Allowing neighborhood bars is not the way to attract more families to move to Salt Lake City. It's not the way to revitalize a city that, unlike the rest of the county in which it resides, has not seen much growth in half a century.

Yet that, unfortunately, may be what a majority of the City Council is poised to do tonight. We hope they reconsider.

In 1960, Salt Lake City's population was 189,454. In 2011, it was an estimated 189,899. That's the very definition of stagnant growth. During those years, many mayors and city council members have agonized over ways to attract families back to the state's capital city.

Now comes a proposal to allow street-corner bars in small commercial zones located in residential neighborhoods. For months now, city council members have been negotiating details of this plan, while residents have been divided. The final version of the ordinance is likely to be hammered out tonight, including possible restrictions.

The best outcome would be to simply scrap the idea altogether.

In fact, allowing neighborhood pubs where alcohol consumption is the main attraction may be the worst move the city could make. It would not make the city more attractive to many people looking for a home, or to developers looking to build family friendly housing units. It would likely increase crime rates, and it runs counter to the city's reputation as the center of a state where prudent controls over the distribution of alcohol have led to low rates of abuse.

Those arguments don't seem to have persuaded Mayor Ralph Becker or some members of the council. At least two of them have organized a celebration party Tuesday night to mark passage of the ordinance, inviting city workers and other community members who worked on its passage. With the city so strongly divided over this measure, a celebration in which alcohol will be served and funded by public money given council members to spend on constituent communications seems divisive and arrogant. Clearly, there are strong feelings on both sides.

From the time he assumed office, Becker has said he wanted to "normalize" liquor regulations in the city. Perhaps he envisions some sort of happy neighborhood pub scene from a vintage black-and-white movie, or the friendly and comedic banter of a "Cheers" episode from the 1980s. Reality is quite different.

The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation examined the effects of neighborhood bars, based on several studies, and concluded "Neighborhoods where bars, restaurants and liquor and other stores that sell alcohol are close together suffer more frequent incidences of violence and other alcohol-related problems… .The strong connection between alcohol and violence has been clear for a long time — but now we know that this connection also relates to the location of places that sell alcohol."

Amid this growing awareness, it would be foolish for Salt Lake City to chase after something certain to make the city less desirable to families.

It is true the ordinance will not lead to an overnight explosion of neighborhood bars. Anyone wanting to open one would first likely need a conditional use permit from the city Planning Commission, and then a liquor license from the Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.

However, the ordinance sends a strong signal to the rest of the state about what the city values. We hope a majority of the council comes to its senses on this matter.

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