Downtown businesses on 21-Ordinance


The Iowa City Downtown District has experienced many changes in the past three years, including renovations, construction of high-rises, and the implementation of several highly contested ordinances.

One such regulation in particular is back on the ballot and will be voted on Nov. 5.

The 21-ordinance, which was established in 2010, prohibits people under the age of 21 from being in bars after 10 p.m. However, several establishments, including most restaurants and music venues, have been exempted.

With the law hitting its third year, The Daily Iowan spoke to businesses on the evolution of the 21-ordinance since it was first implemented.

“A lot has changed downtown since the 21-ordinance came into effect,” said Leah Cohen, the owner of Bo-James. “Several bars have closed and more retail has gone in. The other big thing is the city has passed another ordinance so other bars can’t be located next to each other, and if a restaurant comes in, it can only be open until midnight and not until 2 a.m.”

Cohen said the University of Iowa and the city of Iowa City have been determined in helping reconstruct downtown, and have “put quite a bit of money and time to redo the infrastructure in downtown.”

Vito’s, One-Eyed Jakes, and 808 Restaurant & Night Club closed down soon after the ordinance was passed. FilmScene, a nonprofit theater, now occupies the once-vacant space between Mondo’s Saloon and Brother’s Bar.

Retail stores, such as Nori and Raygun, have been established in the Ped Mall area, and more businesses are making their way downtown.

George Etre, the owner of Formosa and Takanami, said when the ordinance was first established, activities downtown slowed, then turned around within a year.

“After the initial eight months to a year, the Downtown District has really blossomed, and it’s as busy as it’s ever been,” he said.

However, Pete McCarthy, general manager of Gabe’s and the Yacht Club, does not reflect the same sentiment.

“We’ve noticed mainly a lot fewer people in downtown,” he said. “You know you don’t have a crowd downtown anymore, and the [the ordinance] has driven people away, and it’s not just people under 21. This is the slowest we’ve seen it.”

But at the Airliner, a business exempt from the ordinance, employees say  business is booming.

“We comply with the rules of the police,” said Gabe Lynott, general manager of the Airliner. “We definitely are partnering with them every day and every weekend to do everything as legal and safe as we can.”

Although business representatives were wary of expressing their opinion on the law, some still are looking forward for the community’s vote.

“I want people to vote, whatever their vote may be,” Etre said. “Our businesses are not tailored to 21, they’re just nice restaurants anyone can go out to, so business-wise, we’re not tailored.”

However, some are afraid of what the vote might mean if it is repealed, and the pressures it would put on law enforcement.

“There would be a lot more police activity downtown, and with the ability to have house parties, there’s always going to be that ability,” Lynott said. “Some of those kids might end up downtown, and that just might put more weight on the police department.”

Regardless of the vote, Cohen believes that the city and the UI are hoping to keep the area 21-only.

“I think the local city ordinance has helped solidify the 21-ordinance, and works together to reduce the number of bars,” Cohen said. “I believe the long-term planning for the Downtown District and the University of Iowa includes downtown remaining 21.”

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