Iowa City's 21-only Bar Law Likely Going to Voters

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

Patrons enjoy a Friday night at Jo James, May 13, 2011 in Iowa City. (Becky Malewitz/SourceMedia Group News)

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY, Iowa - It looks like Iowa City voters will once again decide the bar-entry age in town.

The City Clerk’s office said Thursday that a petition calling for the repeal of Iowa City’s so-called 21-only law, which bans people younger than 21 from being in most places with liquor licenses after 10 p.m., collected enough valid signatures.

The petition needed to be signed by 2,500 registered Iowa City voters to force the City Council to act. The city said 2,604 of the 5,716 signatures that were submitted met that standard.

That means the City Council must either enact the proposal, which would allow people 19 and older in bars at night, or send it to voters. Several council members have already said they do not support repealing the law, so the issue will probably be on the November ballot.

It would be the third time since 2007 the bar-entry age has gone before Iowa City voters, with 21-only being rejected the first time and winning the next election, in fall 2010.

The current law has been on the books for three years, and supporters have said decreases in some alcohol-related offenses show it works, downtown has not suffered as some predicted and they believe the community has moved on.

City Council member Susan Mims noted that the council also has amended the law a few times to allow for certain entertainment exceptions to the age limit.

“We really tried to address the need for activities for the under-21 crowd,” she said, adding that she expects the council call an election and the public to uphold the law.

There are even some indications University of Iowa students aren’t as opposed to 21-only as in the past, despite being the focus of the current petition drive.

Not only were students unable to defeat the law in the 2010 election, but the outgoing UI Student Government president told The Gazette last month that he did not believe the issue was a priority for current students. Also, the editorial board of the UI student-run newspaper, the Daily Iowan, this week said 21-only should stand and decried the “insufferable, endless debate.”

The petition drive seeking to overturn 21-only was led by two people associated with downtown bars: George Wittgraf, owner of the Union Bar, and Josh Erceg, a manager at Martinis.

Wittgraf said people younger than 21 still go to bars, they just do so in the early evening and leave at 10 p.m., and they want to stay until closing time.

He said a campaign strategy is still being put together, but he expects it to focus on on-campus activities and educating the general public on the law.

“The students make up this town,” he said. “This town wouldn’t be anything without them.”

Wittgraf also acknowledged he could gain financially by 19- and 20-year-olds being allowed in bars at night, saying he has one of the largest dance clubs in the state and would like to expand the acts, like DJs, it brings in. He also said the building, at 121 E. College St., is old and his space is in need of repairs.

“As far of the money thing, I honestly would like more money,” he said. “And I’d like to put it back in (the building).”

The 21-only issue will probably go to the City Council at its next meeting, which is July 23, for discussion only, City Clerk Marian Karr said. And then assuming the council does not want to repeal the law, it will vote Aug. 6 to put it up for election, she said.

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