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Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 12:07 pm

Smoke signals

Springfield's bars send up an S.O.S. to City Council

Thirsty’s Playground owner Perry Zubeck says business has dried up because of the ban.
Untitled Document Thirsty’s Playground seems lonelier now. The cigarettes have been stubbed out, the ashtrays relegated to the beer garden. The bar is still in its infancy, so its walls haven’t heard enough stories to tell and its patrons aren’t sufficiently seasoned to know whether they’ll weather blizzards and thunderstorms in the beer garden and keep the place alive. Owner Perry Zubeck says his dream may last another 60 days — maybe. On a Thursday evening, “Dust in the Wind” hums ominously from the speakers as word puzzles pop up on the flat screens surrounding the empty bar. By 8:15 p.m., just eight patrons sit inside to guzzle spirits. Friday isn’t much better. Zubeck can’t even draw a crowd for a Sunday Chicago Bears game. Zubeck isn’t upset about the clean air that has replaced thick clouds of cigarette smoke in his eight-month-old establishment. He’s unnerved because, less than a mile away, in the village of Jerome, attorney Kevin Davlin, brother of Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin, is rebuilding the Barrel Head, a pub and eatery demolished by the March tornadoes. Within the confines of the soon-to-be hotspot, smokers will be able to puff until their lungs turn black. When Barrel Head opens its doors, Zubeck says, Thirsty’s is
a goner.

“If it were a level playing field… but with the ban that is in place, it creates an unfair advantage for Jerome, Southern View, and Chatham,” Zubeck says. “They’re all laughing at us: ‘Thank you, Springfield, for your stupid little ban.’
“Once the Barrel Head goes up, we’re done.”
Zubeck’s tried thinking outside the tavern to recover from the hit Thirsty’s took when the City Council ordered all indoor workplaces to put away their ashtrays on Sept. 17. Zubeck enclosed his beer garden with tent walls to block winter’s cold air and installed two propane heaters. But some barflies prefer to drink and smoke in the comfort of their own homes rather than outdoors, hovering around a heater. Springfield resident and smoker Jim Butler may spend happy hours on his sofa if Thirsty’s closes its doors. Butler says he continues to come to Thirsty’s because it’s a good location and he knows Zubeck. However, he says, if Zubeck follows through on his threat to close at the end of next month, he’ll “probably be spending a lot of time at home.”
Fewer and fewer smokers willing to stick it out are seen in Zubeck’s watering hole. “We went through our slowest Friday since we’ve been opened last weekend. I know we had our neighborhood clientele. We had a lot of business from Jerome, and those people aren’t coming out, Zubeck says. “They’re staying home.”
Many Springfield bars report at least a 50 percent drop in business, and their management says that either Springfield needs to rethink its smoking ban or smoking across the state needs to be snuffed out. There’s no denying that the hordes of nonsmokers who pushed for clean air in local pubs and bars last fall haven’t replaced the revenue provided by regulars who enjoy sucking down a few cancer sticks with their spirits. Newt’s Raceway owner Larry Baskett Jr. can attest that the nonsmokers didn’t make good on their guarantee. “There’s no revenue; they’re not coming in,” Baskett says. “We heard all about [how] the [non]smokers are going to come to our bar — and nothing. They haven’t showed up. I know I’m not the only one that’s in this crisis.”

The months leading up to the day the smoking ban went into effect were fairly quiet. After the Legislature amended the state’s 1989 Illinois Clean Indoor Air Act, in May 2005, to empower local governments to impose smoking bans, Springfield Ward 10 Ald. Bruce Strom took up the cause. In August, the 36 organizations that make up Smoke Free Springfield released the findings of a poll showing that 65 percent of people in Springfield wanted a total smoking ban. At two public hearings last fall, a smattering of smokers got up and talked about their civil liberties; bar owners let their lobbyist, Steve Riedl of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, do most of the talking. But it was the nonsmokers and health community who were fired up.
A comprehensive ordinance drafted by Strom in November 2005 seemed destined for certain passage, but in the weeks before the council was scheduled to vote, a fellow Republican, Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards withdrew his support. “Wouldn’t you think that the business owner knows his clientele? And if he is telling me that this is his livelihood and his investment, don’t you think we ought to listen to those people?” Edwards told Illinois Times last fall. Ultimately Strom’s ordinance failed. However, Mayor Davlin introduced a bill identical to Strom’s, and it passed in January. Smoking is a hot topic in Illinois and around the country. Since Springfield passed its no-smoking law, similar legislation has been proposed or gone on the books in dozens of towns, including Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, and Chicago. In February, state Rep. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, introduced a bill to prohibit smoking in all Illinois workplaces. For Collins, whose daughter has asthma, the issue was a personal one.  “When you go out, you can’t enjoy dinner, you can’t enjoy anything, because of all of the smoke everywhere. For people who are already sick, if you’re around all that cigarette smoke, you’re never going to get better,” she says. And members of the pro-smoking lobby, who have long argued that no hard evidence exists to prove that secondhand smoke is bad for people, were dealt a major blow when, on June 27, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona released a comprehensive report concluding that “there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.” It didn’t stop proponents of public smoking from combating smoking bans in Illinois, though. Ten days after the Springfield went smoke-free, the ILBA commissioned a survey that found that 54 percent of area voters wouldn’t mind an easement to allow smoking in bars and in private clubs such as the VFW and American Legion. Riedl, the ILBA executive director, says that bar owners, who claim to have lost more than half their business, need relief. “Smokers tend to either just quit going out or they retire to private residential venues,” he says. But Strom stands by his position that the issue is about health and not “whether somebody is making a few dollars or not.” He believes that it’s too early to gauge the ordinance’s economic impact. Besides, the alderman says, the economies of other communities where smoking bans have been implemented have done just fine, so why would Springfield’s be any different? “What causes them to go under may be because they are so resistant to the whole notion of being smoke-free that they don’t market themselves correctly in this kind of economic environment,” Strom says. Ward 3 Ald. Frank Kunz is feeling bar owners’ pain. “I’m self-employed, so I know what a 3 percent drop does to a business,” Kunz says. Kunz, who voted against the ban, has introduced an ordinance that would enable any business in Springfield that bars its doors to people younger than 18 to permit smoking. The public-affairs committee of the City Council will consider the ordinance on Monday, Nov. 20, and although it’s unlikely that Kunz will have the votes he needs on the full council for it to pass, he believes that it’s the right thing to do. “I’ve lost many a vote 9-1,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the government’s business to tell private businesses what to do. I don’t like zero-tolerance policies; there’s got to be some room for compromise in America.”
One day, it may all be moot. Strom addressed the concerns of ILBA members — who showed up in force at last week’s council meeting for what was planned as a silent protest — by saying, “Perhaps we should all join together and lobby the state Legislature so that we get a comprehensive statewide ordinance.”
He noted that voters in three states — Arizona, Ohio, and Nevada — had agreed to ballot initiatives on Election Day banning smoking in one form or another. Earlier this year, state legislatures in Virginia and Maryland flirted with the idea of imposing bans there, but anti-smoking bills in both of those states were rejected. Currently 474 municipalities, 18 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. prohibit smoking in workplaces, bars, restaurants, and other places, and the number is growing. State Rep. Collins says that her comprehensive proposal, H.B. 4338, is needed to address “a patchwork of laws” governing smoking in the state. Hers, like Springfield’s ordinance, excuses private residences, except those that serve as home-based businesses; child-care, adult-care, and health-care facilities; hotel and motel rooms; and retail tobacco stores. H.B. 4338 does not make allowances for stage performances with smoking scenes.  “If I had it my way, you wouldn’t even be able to smoke in the park,” she says. “When people walk in front of you and they’re smoking, the smoke still goes right in your face.”
It’s doubtful that the Legislature will pass, or even vote on, H.B. 4338 during this year’s veto session, which began Tuesday. Collins says she’s about 16 votes short of the support needed for passage, with most of the resistance coming from downstate legislators. State Rep. Raymond Poe, of Springfield, says that although he hasn’t read the Collins bill and supports local property rights, he agrees with the need for a statewide ban, at least in theory.  “I’m not a drinker or a smoker, but I sure like to eat,” Poe says. But for him to support any smoking legislation, he says, the bill must contain language that includes the city of Chicago. Collins’ measure exempts cities with populations greater than 500,000, even though Chicago has passed a citywide smoking ordinance. “I’m getting tired of legislating for everybody else in the state. If it doesn’t include Chicago, I’m not going to vote for it,” Poe says.
For the time being, bar owners in Springfield are just going to have to wait out the drought. The Smoke Free Springfield coalition isn’t going to pick up its lobbying efforts of the state lawmakers until the regular session convenes, after the first of the year. Kunz’s ordinance will probably go down in flames, and Edwards has jettisoned plans to draft an ordinance exempting private clubs from the ban. For his part, Mayor Tim Davlin hasn’t seemed interested in rolling back the ban. In July he maneuvered to beat down a legal challenge by Riedl on behalf of the ILBA. In the meantime, some taverns are surviving on drink specials — and a little creativity. Teri Litwiller, manager of the Forty-Niner Bye-Bye, says her bar wasn’t as devastated as other places but has begun to feel the pinch in its pocketbook as the evening crowd has dwindled. “Those people are leaving after one drink,” Litwiller says. The management of the Forty-Niner installed a few heaters, added some tables, and mounted a television in an attempt to bring the bar feeling into the beer garden. The management of Boone’s Uptown Grill had the same idea, adding some warmth to the sizable outdoor seating area. Owner Karey Wanless finds it difficult to tell how much her business has suffered since the smoking restrictions have been enforced because she and her brother, Steve Burg, took over the bar less than a year ago. She has noticed that her smoking crowd is gone. Just in case they come back, Wanless is making sure that they won’t lose their seats at the bar when they step outside for a drag. She doles out seat-saver cards, good for a few minutes, to smokers heading outdoors. Many Springfield drinking spots don’t have the luxury of shooing smokers into the great outdoors. The management of the Brewhaus thought that a few tables on the sidewalk in front of the bar might entice some of the lunch crowd back to eat, drink, and smoke, but he says the city nixed the idea because of the Brewhaus’ status as a tavern. Mike Parkes, proprietor of the Brewhaus, says that business is way down, despite his establishment’s location in the heart of Springfield’s tourist district. He rescheduled the jazz band from their usual Tuesday-night slot to a Monday happy-hour gig in the hope that patrons will come back for the music and perhaps stick around for a “nicotini” — nicotine-infused vodka. Parkes says the mint-flavored cocktail is a popular addition to the list of libations. Such creativity is what it will take for bars to survive. “I don’t think we’re in the business running people out of business or seeing lives destroyed because of laws we’ve passed,” Edwards says of the City Council. But there will never be a consensus, he adds, on how to tweak Springfield’s ban to make it fair for everyone. “This smoking ban has pitted people against each other,” Edwards says. “I think the community is getting worn out.”

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com and R.L. Nave at rnave@illlinoistimes.com.
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