Wednesday, October 15, 2008

COLUMN: The District

Once upon a time, the city leaders of Rock Island had a plan, and it was a good one.

They saw their downtown, once the centerpiece of a thriving river community, turning into a museum of forgotten dreams and days gone by. But rather than see nothing but gloom and doom (and trust me, I originally hail from Galesburg, I know a little something about gloom and doom,) these visionaries instead saw potential. They had an idea that could turn Rock Island from yet another slice of forgotten Americana into a thriving center for culture and tourism.

Calls were made to some of the area's most proven business leaders -- pleas to come to downtown Rock Island and bring it back to life. With dreams, promises, and financial assistance, businesses began sprouting up in a two block radius soon to become the shining star of Quad City nightlife. A non-profit group (DARI) was formed to help these businesses prosper. The District was born.

A perfect complement to the riverfront casino and the elegance of Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse, the District has now become synonymous with weekend fun in the Quad Cities. Walk through the District and you'll see a neighborhood wholly unique to this neck of the woods. Brew pubs, live music venues, bars, and clubs working hand-in-hand with art galleries, cutting-edge theatre groups, and loft-style residential living -- you've got to look far and wide to find anything as vibrant up or down the river. The District created the blueprint for the modern street festival that you now see emulated all over the Midwest.

Once upon a now, the city leaders of Rock Island have another plan, and this one's not so good.

The District has become a destination point for fun and nightlife in the Quad Cities. Drive 100 miles away and tell someone you're from Rock Island. "Ohhh, the District!" they'll say, I guarantee it. As a tourism and entertainment hub, a weekend in the District draws folks in by the thousands. From what I hear, in fact, the DJ at the club 2nd Ave. is such a talented, sexy, and mega-awesome draw that he sometimes forgets that his REAL day job is writing an unbiased newspaper column.

But the road to success doesn't come without a bump or two. Every time you've got thousands of people gathering together for revelry, the potential for problems is there. The District can help people have a great night out, but it can't stop people from occasionally being idiots.

Every night at 3 a.m., the nightclubs and bars of the District close up shop. And every night, thousands of folks are herded onto the downtown plaza, where occasionally fights can break out. Usually it's just a couple of morons, and it's handled quickly and effectively by the off-duty officers paid for by the clubs to patrol the area. Still, you get word of some fights and the next thing you know, people get worked up.

That's why the city council members are getting together to discuss ways of improving the District, and one of the proposals being discussed is to change Rock Island liquor licenses to 2 a.m. This isn't just a dumb move, it's a move that would spell the end for the District.

The bars and clubs of the downtown depend on the 3 a.m. closing time to prosper, plain and simple. Cutting operations by an hour is just bad business, and these clubs will close down, pack up shop and head for higher ground. Hundreds of bartenders, wait staff, and yes -- even talented, sexy, and mega-awesome DJ's -- will be out of work.

And then what happens to Rock Island? The casino's relocating in weeks, Circa '21 has made no secret of their efforts to keep attendance high -- and if the bars leave, so too will the folks who live in the downtown loft developments for the opportunity to be a part of the District (because they sure don't live there for the ample parking.)

Beyond the District, the downtown clubs also provide an extra 1% sales tax that goes straight into city coiffers, and that means tens of thousands of dollars disappearing from the city budget by losing that single hour of business.

The answer clearly isn't early closure. The same problems facing downtown Rock Island at 3 a.m. are occurring in downtown Davenport when they close shop at 2 a.m. Idiots don't set their watches to 3 a.m. for fightin' time. When Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood enacted similar changes, it didn't curb the violence -- but it DID result in the closure of over 80 successful businesses.

The answer is simple: Soft closure. Let the District bars stay open as long as they want. Don't panic - I'm not proposing 24 hours of drunken hedonism. At 3 a.m., all bars would stop serving alcohol and stop letting people in, but would continue pumping tunes onto dancefloors until the crowd slowly departs at their own pace. When you're not forcing 5000 people onto the streets at once, your potential for problems drops ten-fold.

At the end of the day, am I biased here? Sure I am. I'm proud to have worked in the District for the last 8 years, and I want to be there for 8 more. Despite the grumblings of online bloggers and naysayers, the District is the premiere fun and safe nightlife destination in the Quads. Hey, I'm a giant wuss and I wouldn't hang out someplace that's dangerous. But if you change the closing times to 2 a.m., you'll do little more than sign the death sentence for the arts & entertainment district we cherish.

Now someone help me off this soapbox so I can go play Guitar Hero.

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