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Posted on Tue. Aug. 20, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

Group asks: Even if more drinking boosts the economy, is it worth the cost?

If Council OKs cheap licenses, it should also try to minimize problems, Consortium says

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Jerri Lerch insists she's no Prohibitionist and fully supports efforts to revitalize downtown Fort Wayne.

But when she hears civic leaders suggest that more liquor will also create more economic vitality, the executive director of the city's Drug and Alcohol Consortium cringes because she knows from painful experience that any financial gains will be matched and perhaps exceeded by costs that cannot be measured in dollars alone.

And so, when City Council conducts a public hearing Tuesday on a resolution that would allow certain downtown businesses to apply for low-cost three-way liquor licenses in excess of the state's population-based quota system, Lerch will be there. Not to object, but to suggest that at least some of the program's anticipated revenues should be used to prevent or address the problems she fears it will exacerbate.

“Our concern is that when alcohol is more available, you see more adults addicted and more binge drinking (by young people). Alcohol is the No. 1 drug of abuse,” Lerch said. “We do support economic development and are excited about what is happening downtown. But we don't want to get carried away.

“We're not really going to oppose (the resolution). But do we wish it would not happen? Pretty Much.”

Whether the proposed “downtown dining district” actually does happen remains to be seen. After Tuesday's public hearing – which is expected to include support from public officials and even some bar and restaurant owners – Council won't vote for at least another week. The proposal, authorized by state law, would make the licenses available to certain businesses within the district, which is roughly within 1,500 feet of the three rivers downtown. Businesses receiving the licenses would contribute $2,500 per year to a new downtown marketing fund.

As I first reported back in April, it's the old “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” theory: More bars and restaurants will bring more people downtown, benefiting even businesses that paid $100,000 or more for licenses their competitors would receive nearly for free.

But even if that's true – and Lerch said her organization's research indicates many businesses in other cities have gone belly up despite the cheap licenses – she wants supporters to understand there's more at stake.

Funded mostly through grants, the consortium works with more than 145 member agencies to reduce the negative impact of drugs and alcohol, especially among young people. And its statistic are, ironically enough, sobering: Between January and May of this year, the Indiana Excise Police had issued 12 alcohol violations, and eight of them were for selling booze to a minor. Overall, alcohol remains the country's No. 1 addictive drug of choice and more than 1.4 million Americans were arrested for driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs in 2010.

In Indiana that year, drunken drivers killed 135 people.

Public officials have of course presented a compelling vision of a downtown Fort Wayne buzzing with night life and excitement that creates not only jobs and taxes but makes people and companies want to locate or expand here. When those economic development successes occur, the politicians make sure everybody knows about it.

Lerch offers other numbers that are less well known but equally compelling: How alcohol abuse is responsible for $30 billion in annual health care costs and $235 billion in crime and lost productivity costs.

One could of course argue – persuasively – that people who want a drink are going to drink with or without this program. But if Lerch is right when she suggests that the density of drinking establishments contributes to consumption, she is also right to suggest the Council should not stop at simply authorizing the issuance of the licenses.

She would also like to see Council consider ordinances that would boost penalties for serving alcohol to minors or to adult customers who have already had too much to drink. She also suggests that perhaps some of the money earmarked for downtown marketing should instead be made available for the prevention or treatment of alcohol-related problems.

Just how complicated is the balance between public safety and economic development? In 2003, as president of the Downtown Improvement District, Paula Hughes suggested downtown businesses had been targeted by police drunken-driving patrols, thereby harming efforts to revitalize the district – a suggestion Lerch said was never proven.

Today, however, Hughes is president of the Drug & Alcohol Consortium Board – and was expected to join Lerch at Tuesday's hearing in urging Council not to overlook public safety in its zeal to create jobs.

It's good advice, but easier said than done.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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