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Not-so-happy hour: Proposal to keep Philly bars open to benefit schools draws fire

There's nothing like drinking to a good cause, so why not let Philadelphia bars stay open until 3 a.m. to generate more tax revenue for city schools?

Bartender Kristie Matt, pulling a draft beer at Brownie’s in Old City, says moving the closing time to 3 a.m. could result in "an extra hour for chaos."
Bartender Kristie Matt, pulling a draft beer at Brownie’s in Old City, says moving the closing time to 3 a.m. could result in "an extra hour for chaos."Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

There's nothing like drinking to a good cause, so why not let Philadelphia bars stay open until 3 a.m. to generate more tax revenue for city schools?

That's the idea laid out by City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown on Thursday, a concept that immediately drew criticism.

"I can't speak for everyone, but I think the reaction we're going to have is: Absolutely not in this community," said Matt Ruben, president of the board of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.

Brown anticipated that the bill would fan concerns about crime and rowdy drunken behavior in neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties, Old City, and Manayunk.

"My take is that all those concerns are legitimate," she said. "But it's important that we do the homework and the research. . . . We need to be open to the conversation."

She wants people to discuss the idea because the city must find new revenue sources for the financially troubled School District.

Will the thought of schoolchildren going without art and music classes inspire late-night civic-minded swizzling?

Janelle Findlater, 22, of West Philly, a bartender stopping for a drink at Khyber Pass on South Second Street on Thursday, was ready to join the cause.

"There's lots of nights when I'm not done, but I have to go home because everyone stops serving at 2," she said. "After 2, I'll go to a friend's house - but why not put that money back into the community?"

Brown estimates that the extra hour would generate an additional $5 million for the School District. In fiscal 2010, liquor taxes generated $42 million for the schools.

Council has raised major taxes for three straight years, and the public is unlikely to tolerate more hikes, she said.

"Continuously going back to our taxpayers and asking to raise their property taxes puts a knot in our throats," Brown said.

Her plan appears headed for political turbulence.

Mayor Nutter does not think Brown's bill is a good idea, said his spokesman, Mark McDonald.

"If you look at patterns of violence in the city that occur with high frequency in the overnight hours and often near bars, there is a lot of crime," McDonald said, "and that raises a serious question about the bill."

AAA Mid-Atlantic issued a statement saying the bill had the potential to increase drunken driving, noting that if suburban bars stay only stay open until 2 a.m. but city watering holes can serve until 3, people may be tempted to drive from one location to the other.

Professionals were divided.

Kristie Matt, 36-year-old bartender at Brownie's in Old City, was unsure how much more cash the extra hour would bring, but said Brownie's would have to do it if competitors stayed open.

"It's not necessarily a bad thing," she said, "but it also could be an extra hour for chaos."

Kevin O'Malley, 40, manager of Serrano, doesn't like it. "There are enough idiots out at 2 a.m.," he said. "The knuckleheads who linger around and cause problems afterward are the people who want the extra hour. I think 2 a.m. is fine. Let's keep the streets clean."

At neighboring Cuba Libre, manager Mcgarrit Franco, 37, said the nightlife already continues after 2 a.m., with plenty of after-hours clubs.

"It will generate a decent amount of money and give people an extra hour to sober up or get another drink in," Franco said. "At 2 there is still a lively crowd, so it would be nice to keep the crowd, since people are still intact by then."

Brown noted that other large cities, including New York, Washington, Atlanta and Miami, allow drinking establishments to stay open past 2 a.m. She said State Rep. Vanessa Brown had introduced legislation that would need to pass in order for Philadelphia bars to extend their hours.

More drinking can mean more tips and more business and more taxes for the city, said Lily Caruso, 23, a bartender at Khyber Pass. "To think that it wouldn't produce revenue would be incredibly naive," said Caruso, who thinks the benefits outweigh the negatives. "I'd make more tips - people would be way more drunk than usual."

In Old City, crowds swarming the streets to eat and drink on weekends have grown so large that the Old City District several months ago added private security and is hoping to get more police, said Harvey Spear, vice chairman of the district.

Bob Cappella, 42, having a drink at Nick's bar, said, "I don't see how it's beneficial. We just had a kid killed at 2:30 in the morning. It just gives another hour for someone to get hurt."

The Jan. 14 murder of Kevin Kless, who was beaten to death after leaving a bar and trying to hail a cab near Independence Hall, has amped concerns about safety in the area.

Nick Gonnella, 65, the owner of Nick's, said a later closing time "will bring problems here from other areas."

"This is just going to cause more problems," he said. "Even if you stagger closing times, the drunks will just go to the next bar."

Spear likes Brown, and believes her intentions are good. But he said the bill could have unexpected costs, like the need to add even more police and security guards.

"There are a lot of ramifications to this," he said. "There are going to be costs."

In Manayunk, where drinkers spill out into largely residential neighborhoods, noise, public urination, and general unruliness are a frequent topic at community meetings.

Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corp., said she wanted to talk to her members before developing an opinion.

"It is something that I'm sure people are going to have hot feelings around, both for and against," she said.