Northrop alcohol sales create resentment from area club owners

by Peter Frost

Dan O’Gara is bitter toward the University.
At a 1998 meeting, University officials asked O’Gara, who co-owns O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul, and other local bar and club owners not to serve alcohol at all-ages events. The idea was even if bartenders checked IDs, underage patrons still managed get their hands on alcohol, especially at concerts.
Other bar owners agreed and called off their all-ages nights to watch out for the safety of young people and as a gesture toward the community.
But O’Gara and Jim Brown, general manager of The Cabooze, feel the University went against its word with a decision to sell alcohol at Northrop Auditorium concerts and other events — exactly what the school asked bars not to do.
It’s “irresponsible and highly hypocritical” said O’Gara regarding the University’s new alcohol policy.
O’Gara and Brown stopped their all-ages nights in June 1998 after a meeting held by University employees Amelious Whyte and Traci Toomey. They discussed how drink specials encourage people to overdrink, the importance of checking IDs and other complications involved with all-ages nights.
University officials, local police, business owners and other community groups also attended.
“At the meeting we decided that it’s inevitable that minors will get their hands on alcohol at all-ages shows,” O’Gara said. Still, the decision to cancel shows was tough.
O’Gara estimates he and Brown have lost anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of their revenues by calling off all-ages nights.
Bars don’t make much money directly from underage patrons, but they lose money when bigger-name bands and their record labels decide not to play. When younger people can’t get in, crowds are smaller and older, cover charges fall short and merchandise doesn’t sell.
“When you get a bigger band in, you get many more customers, which leads to a lot more income for us,” O’Gara explained.
But income is perhaps what University officials have in mind.
The idea for alcoholic beverage sales at Northrop Auditorium arose last fall while regents brainstormed ways to finance $20 million in Northrop Auditorium renovations to take place in 2003.
In November, regents approved a one-year suspension of a law stating that no alcohol could be sold within one-tenth of a mile of the University’s main administration building.
“I just think that it’s the completely wrong message to send for the University,” said Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, University alumnus and former state legislator. “Last fall, there were all these articles about Big Ten schools and the alcohol problems that exist there, and then we go out and get a liquor license. It just doesn’t make sense.”
University administrators expect alcohol sales to generate about $100,000 annually. They hope alcohol will also help boost ticket sales and draw crowds from similar Twin Cities venues.
Underage drinking at Northrop, say school officials, shouldn’t be a problem.
“I’m not really worried about it,” said University President Mark Yudof. “There will be very stringent rules set by the committee, and I have confidence that the people policing the events — which includes University Police — will do their jobs.”
Eric Kruse, associate vice president for Facilities Management and vice president for Auxiliary Services, explained why there shouldn’t be a problem with underage drinking.
“The people that attend the types of shows we have at Northrop have an expectation that (alcohol) is an amenity,” he said, noting sophisticated people attend the auditorium’s many ballets and operas every year.
Kruse also noted that alcohol won’t be served at every event.
A committee made up of police, University officials and community group members is in place to decide whether alcohol will be served on an event-to-event basis.
For instance, if an event has underage appeal, the committee will likely vote against serving alcohol.
But even officials agree the committee system isn’t foolproof.
“I’m 100 percent sure that the sun’s going to come up tomorrow,” Kruse said. “But I don’t know if I can say I’m 100 percent confident (underage drinking) won’t happen.”
This lack of confidence is precisely why O’Gara and Pat Fleury, president of the St. Paul Hospitality Association, are fuming over the Board of Regents’ decision.
“There is something wrong if they are going to look me in the eye and tell me they won’t have problems there. I can guarantee bad things are going to happen,” Fleury said.
“You can quote me on this: They’re lying if they say no minors are going to drink there,” he said.
Still, the University and its supporters stridently rebut the accusations of Fleury, O’Gara, Farrell and others.
“People don’t go to Northrop looking for drink specials to get drunk, whereas people will go to a bar just to get drunk and get these drink specials,” said Amelious Whyte, a member of the University’s public health department and advocate for responsible alcohol use.
Even though Whyte lobbied for O’Gara and Brown to stop having all-ages shows, O’Gara said they refused to speak up to the University when they decided to get a liquor license where alcohol will be in the presence of minors.
“I realize Mr. O’Gara and Mr. Fleury may think that the University is hypocritical for this move, but with all respect to them, these are two different things,” Whyte argued. “Northrop Auditorium is not a bar.”

Peter Frost covers business and welcomes comments to [email protected]