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Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007 02:32 pm

Inconclusive evidence

Is it lousy locations, bad burgers, or the ban that’s killing the bars?

Untitled Document If arguments by supporters of the Springfield smoking ban have held up, business at liquor-serving establishments should be booming as nonsmokers pour into the city’s formerly hazy bars and taverns. Conversely, if opponents of the ban are correct, watering holes on the city’s perimeter, near municipalities where smoking is still permitted, should be close to taking their last breaths. So far, neither scenario has proved to be the case.
The deadline for businesses to renew their city-issued liquor licenses was Jan. 1. Those that fail to do so relinquish the right to sell suds with their sandwiches. Although the renewal list has not yet been finalized, Todd Oliver, division manager of Springfield’s business licensing and liquor commission, confirms that at least three popular area businesses have closed their doors in recent weeks.
They are Shooterz Grill Inc., 131 E. Jefferson St.; Buster’s Sports Bar and Grill, 1120 Sangamon Ave.; and Thirsty’s Playground, 1975 W. Wabash Ave. According to City Hall spokesman Ernie Slottag, on the basis of the information the city has now, the number of liquor-license renewals this year isn’t far off last year’s. Still, the proprietors of these establishments blame the smoking ban for their demise. Shooterz owner Jay Dickerson had been operating for four months before he decided to shut down, two days before Christmas. Food sales, especially during lunch, were fine, but a sag in nighttime alcohol sales is what killed the business, Dickerson says. But businesses close, and new ones open up. For the ones that have bit the dust here, whether the ban is to blame is anybody’s guess. “If there was ever a time I wish I weren’t right, it’s now,” says Steve Riedl, executive director of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association. “We told the truth to the City Council, and they took the word of these longstanding health organizations at face value.”
Ward 10 Ald. Bruce Strom, who is running for mayor and championed the smoking ban, points to numerous smoking bans across the nation as evidence of a changing marketplace — and various market forces can cause businesses to close, he says.
Health-advocacy groups routinely blow holes in studies published by the tobacco, alcohol, and restaurant industries that report negative economic impact on cities in which smoking bans are imposed. Nationwide, 56 percent of all restaurants fail within three years of opening, according to a 2005 Bureau of Labor Statistics study. Factors unrelated to the restaurant’s popularity, such as financial hardship brought on by an owner’s divorce or poor health, can cause it to close. Thirsty’s Playground owner Perry Zubeck blamed the smoking ban for poor business. As he indicated that he might do in November, he closed down his less-than-one-year-old restaurant and bar, and he says he’s “moving on.”
In the case of Thirsty’s Playground, ban supporters cite the location, which has been occupied by several restaurants in recent years, as the problem. Under that logic, it would seem that the location of Nitwhits Bar and Grill puts that establishment at a disadvantage as well.
Nitwhits, formerly Frankie’s Bar and Grill, sits on South Sixth Street between Chantilly Lace, which has a 3 a.m. liquor license, and the Curve Inn in the village of Southern View — outside the purview of Springfield’s comprehensive indoor smoking ban.
Before the ban went into effect, in September, the operators of Nitwhits, which is allowed to serve booze only until 1 a.m., were bracing for disaster. Although she can’t say that Nitwhits has been immune to the ban’s effects, manager Kelly Pedigo reports that business has been surprisingly good. “We were kind of expecting the worst, and luckily that didn’t end up coming about,” Pedigo says. Many Nitwhits customers, she says, are longtime regulars who have been coming there for years — or they simply prefer Nitwhits now-clean air to the Curve Inn’s smoke-dense environs.
Although rumors that Nitwhits — which closed temporarily for repairs but reopened on Wednesday — had gone out of business because of smoking ban-related complications have circulated, Pedigo tells Illinois Times that Nitwhits has renewed its liquor license and plans to remain open. Meanwhile, Ned Kelly’s Steakhouse, on Freedom Drive, was lauded for becoming one the first restaurants in Springfield to voluntarily go smoke-free. As of the first of the year, however, the restaurant is no longer in business.
Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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