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Last call for alcohol in Morgantown?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As Morgantown officials look for ways to better regulate drinking at West Virginia University, recently ranked the No. 1 party school in the country, business owners are up in arms about some of the suggestions.

At the most recent Morgantown City Council meeting, councilman and former mayor Bill Byrne proposed the "last call" time for bars be pushed from 3 a.m. to midnight.

Byrne believes, if bars close earlier, less alcohol-fueled acts of violence would occur in the downtown area.

"You're just asking for trouble. The status quo is not acceptable. Things are starting to get out of hand," he said. "We want to address these disruptions and the criminal activity downtown."

Byrne also suggested that bars allow entrance only to people 21 and over, and that, in addition to Alcohol Beverage Control officers, police be allowed inside establishments.

Although all of those suggestions go against state code, and the council currently has no plans to go through with them, changes are being made to curb violence in other ways, according to Mayor Jim Manilla.

"We've had a lot of problems with fights and underage-drinking issues," he said. "We've had a few bad experiences this year with random acts of violence and people getting jumped. Almost every time, alcohol is involved."

Although Manilla says there is no threat to downtown business owners, Byrne hopes they will volunteer to make his suggestions a reality.

That's not likely.

"The city should be embracing us instead of this crazy notion that they're going to make a curfew," said Kevin Wilkey, corporate general manager of Rock Top Bar & Grill. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

The bar opened in downtown Morgantown this summer and has since invested upward of $10 million in the city and created 200 jobs, according to Wilkey.

"Financially, the city couldn't afford to give up the tax revenue bars bring in from alcohol sales," he said. "We would just move our business into another area, and we would never come back."

The city of Morgantown received more than $700,000 in wine, liquor and private-club tax revenue in 2011, according to the state Treasurer's Office. Since January, the city has received $465,000.

That money goes straight back into the city's general fund and is distributed for things like police and fire services, according to Morgantown finance director J.R. Sabatelli.

More than 250 stores and bars distribute alcohol in Morgantown -- including 29 establishments where you can drink on site, according to the ABC Administration.

"All this would do is push people to have house parties and pull their shenanigans in residential areas instead of the downtown area," said Duke Minnix, manager of popular bar Bent Willey's. "An earlier last call would spread police even thinner."

City officials are working with the state's ABCA, Morgantown police and WVU to crack down on nightlife activity, Manilla said.

ABCA spokesman Gig Robinson said the administration met with city government and local law enforcement before the start of classes to prepare for this year's record enrollment numbers.

"We have increased compliance activities this year and met with bars to let them know our expectation is, if you allow people under the age of 21 into your bar, it's your responsibility to make sure there are no pass-offs," he said. "We are familiar with the terrible acts of violence that occur outside of bars on the streets, and we want to know [that] what's happening inside doesn't influence that. The best way to do that is to make sure bars don't over-serve."

Morgantown police have moved nighttime bus stops and cab stands away from High Street to alleviate crowd traffic. Police also are regulating lines at bars to make sure owners are keeping sidewalks and roads clear. In addition, police have dedicated a shift Wednesday through Saturday solely for the downtown area on top of regular patrols.

"There have been several violent incidents and arrests, and we're doing a lot of different things to stop that. We are constantly adjusting and addressing these issues," said Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston. "It's a multifaceted problem, but we are always mindful of what's going on and try to keep personnel visible and ready."

Regardless of the outcome, Byrne said he hopes the talk will spur some change in the town.

"WVU has had the No. 1 party school honor for many years, and I think it's somewhat overblown and can contribute to problems," Byrne said. "In the last month or so, we've seen violence and illegal activity that we just can't tolerate anymore. We're just trying to get this conversation going."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at Mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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