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An Earlier Last Call?

A vote nears on a proposal to adopt a 3 AM closing time for Saratoga Springs bars and restaurants

by Thomas Dimopoulos on May 3, 2012

 

A dozen bars and late-night eateries crowd the sidewalk of Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs. It is here, where live late-night music and the neon glow of taverns spill onto the narrow streets, where Christian Mathiesen has chosen to stage his first battle.

“It is a toxic atmosphere,” said Mathieson, the city’s recently elected public-safety commissioner, whose campaign platform pledged to take action on the Spa City’s late-night revelry, which he claims contributes to public safety issues and requires increased police oversight and subsequent city costs.

“It’s out of control. People who haven’t seen it or experienced it can’t judge,” said Mathieson, who said he observed the behavior of late-night crowds last summer.

“There were lots and lots of people out of control. There were drug transactions. There was belligerence and violence.”

Mathieson is advocating for a plan that would change the city’s “last call” hour from 4 AM to 3 AM.

“This would help curb some of the problems we’ve had in the nightclub district,” he said.

The proposal has its detractors, however. A public workshop was held in March, and a public hearing earlier this month. Local residents are divided. Some favor an earlier closing, claiming it would reduce the noise and mayhem on downtown streets, while others say a lack of specific data regarding what occurs between 3 and 4 AM results in a proposal that is simply political rhetoric.

Will Pouch, owner of Esperanto restaurant on Caroline Street, said the earlier closing time doesn’t make sense for his business. And John Baker, owner of Gaffney’s on Caroline Street, said the measure would have a negative effect on a vibrant downtown.

“It would have an adverse effect on sales tax for both the city and county, a loss of jobs, a loss of income for employees, lower assessments, lower property taxes and a loss of sales for all businesses,” Baker said.

There has also been a pushback from the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association. While not committing to the proposal itself, leaders of both organizations have taken issue with the commissioner’s portrayal of the city as dangerous and are concerned the semantics will have a negative effect on Saratoga Springs as a tourist destination.

“The denial that we’re hearing about whether or not there are problems, sorry, but there really are problems,” said Mathieson, adding that he was somewhat surprised at the reaction by the business organizations.

“We’re not trying to diminish the reputation of Saratoga Springs as a fun, safe place to come,” Mathieson said. “We’re just trying to tone things down.”

A ruling is expected by the State Liquor Authority on whether the city can institute its own regulations, or if the plan needs to be adopted countywide, which would require approval by the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors to institute a 3 AM closing time throughout the county.

Until that ruling comes, it is unclear whether Mathieson has the majority support of his fellow councilmembers to adopt a city resolution.

Councilman Anthony “Skip” Scirocco said he is inclined to vote against the measure because he doesn’t think a one-hour earlier closing would have any effect, and council members Michele Madigan and John Franck—while agreeing with the plan in principle—said they would like to wait for a ruling by the SLA before they vote. Mayor Scott Johnson has recused himself from a vote because he has ownership interests in two city restaurants.

Mathieson said he will call for a vote at the next council meeting on May 15, regardless of the absence of a ruling from the SLA.

“There’s no reason whatsoever to wait for this ruling,” he said. “The city needs to take a stand first.”

In 2010, Franck had unsuccessfully advocated for a 2 AM closing time in Saratoga Springs, and a voluntary 2 AM closing time has been debated in Albany. That proposal is still on the table, said Robert Van Amburgh, an aide to Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings.

As to where the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors stands on the issue, Saratoga Springs Supervisor Joanne Yepsen said she hasn’t discussed the matter with her fellow county board members.

“I think we would need more information before we would know if the supervisors have a strong feeling about it, one way or another,” Yepsen said.

Mathieson said he remains hopeful the change can be implemented before the start of the summer season.