In an attempt to curb late-night violent crimes downtown, newlyelected Commissioner of Public Safety Christian Mathiesen is seeking to change last call hour from 4 a.m. to 3 a.m.
“I’ve had the opportunity over the past year to actually go down to the Caroline Street district to see what’s happening late at night, and I do believe that 4 a.m. is awfully late,” said Commissioner Mathiesen. “I don’t think that it is a healthy atmosphere. One way of dealing with the problem, I think, is to change the last call hour.”
By changing last call to 3 a.m., Commissioner Mathiesen hopes to reduce the amount of hours the city police spend in late-night crowd control mode, which in turn would reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars spent to cover overtime hours. The commissioner also noted that most of New York State’s 62 counties (excluding the New York City area) have last call hours at 3, 2 or 1 a.m.
“I think that the police would be more effective if they didn’t have to deal with this long period of time, with a last call at 4 a.m.,” said Commissioner Mathiesen, “The longer that people are drinking, the drunker they’re going to get and the more outrageous their behavior becomes.”
But some Saratoga business leaders argue that changing the last call hour is no guaranteed way to curb violence.
“I think [the violence] has little to do with what the hour of the day is,” said Cindy Hollowood, the general manager/operator of the Holiday Inn Saratoga Springs.
In fact, argued Hollowod, a change in time could lead to a wide range of economic troubles and hardships for the community.
“I can tell you that one of the number one things people ask me when they book a reservation is how close we are to downtown and Caroline Street. And in these economic times, we wouldn’t want to compromise any amount of business that we’re able to incur, as long as we can manage it safely and correctly.”
John Baker, owner of Gaffney’s Restaurant and Bar, echoed a few of Hollowood’s concerns.
“Nightlife is one of the main attractions, number two to the track, in Saratoga Springs. As soon as you start shaking up one piece of the puzzle, it affects everything,” said Baker.
One piece of the puzzle is tourism, which many, including Baker and Hollowood, fear might be affected if Saratoga’s nightlife is threatened. Many individuals and groups, including conventioneers and wedding parties, come to Saratoga knowing that they have a chance to socialize downtown after their event is over. If fewer people book hotel rooms, less money will be spent at local establishments, which could lead to lower sales tax revenues and even lower property values if businesses find themselves struggling. Even locally, patrons from neighboring communities might not make the long drive to Saratoga if they know that their time out is cut short. Instead, they may choose to stay closer to where they live.
Baker also argued that having a 4 a.m. closing time allows for crowds to disperse evenly and over time, which avoids huge crowds exiting the bars simultaneously.
“You don’t want everybody to get last call and to have everyone on the street, a mass exodus leaving at 3. The police have always said in the past that it’s easier to control, especially since the nightlife is compacted into a four-block radius.”
It should also be noted that, while violent crimes in Saratoga have received a lot of attention recently, statistics indicate that rates have actually decreased. The latest available data reveals that compared to 2009’s violent crime numbers of 173, 2010’s numbers decreased
But safety is a concern for everyone involved. The commissioner and business leaders alike admit that there is a violence problem in Saratoga, and both sides believe something should be done to fix the situation. On Commissioner Mathiesen’s second approach to fixing the issue, all parties seem to agree:
“Other ways of addressing this [issue] includes putting more responsibility back into the laps of the bar and club owners so that they have more control over what’s going on in their establishment. I’ve seen many people who are obviously quite drunk and belligerent, and for them to get to that point, they must have been served alcohol,” said Commissioner Mathiesen. “According to the State Liquor Authority (SLA), it’s illegal to serve to people who are underage or to people who are obviously inebriated.”
When it comes to taking a more proactive approach and being responsible on the part of bar and restaurant owners, many business leaders seem more than willing to step up to the plate.
“Police have indicated that they want a better partnership with the bars,” said Will Pouch, co-founder and owner of Esperanto. And for their part, Pouch, Baker and more have indicated they are more than willing to work hand in hand with the city to fix the problem.
“Some of the bar owners came up with this idea that involves creating a texting system that warns other establishments and their security about a customer who is causing a problem,” said Pouch.
If established, bar owners would ID a patron who is either causing trouble or has had too much to drink and send a text message to other bar owners and possibly the police. The system would be used to stop patrons from bar hopping from one location to the other, which they hope would curtail drinking and cut down on the associated violence. The particulars of the system are still being discussed and considered, but it’s one solution that Pouch noted Saratoga police seem
The city is also inviting the SLA to come to Saratoga in March for an educational meeting with police, establishment owners and staff. During the meeting, participating parties will have an opportunity to educate themselves on how to act more responsibly in accordance with SLA guidelines in the hopes of curbing excessive drinking and downtown violence.
Ultimately, the issue comes down to communication. The city and its business owners would like to see better communication and stronger partnerships between all parties in an effort to make Saratoga Springs a safe, friendly environment. After all, city officials, business owners and residents stand to benefit from a safe community. But instead of changing the last call hour straight away, business owners are asking the city to take a more measured approach as they work to fix the problem.
“Let’s be smart about how we address the problem,” said Pouch. “There’s an excitement and energy here that can’t be replicated, but you can destroy it. It’s a very fragile balance. If I thought messing with the [last call hour] would help, I’d say ‘yeah, let’s do it.’ But why not try some creative approaches instead of a panacea right out of the gate?”