Under-21 crowd could be barred from some clubs

7/21/2011,Gregory Smith-PROVIDENCE — Civic and government leaders have rearmed in their struggle against troublemakers who disturb the downtown nightlife.

They have won the power for the city Board of Licenses to ban anyone younger than the legal drinking age of 21 from a nightclub that flouts the law against serving alcohol to minors.

State law has no age restriction on who can be inside a place where alcohol is served. But at the request of Providence leaders, the General Assembly approved and Governor Chafee signed into law an exception.

The amended law empowers local liquor-license regulators to prohibit anyone younger than 21 to be in a nightclub that has failed to take steps to make sure minors do not get alcohol and has been caught serving minors more than once within a year.

It also could be invoked if minors were caught drinking or possessing alcohol on the premises, even if the act of serving could not be proved.

“It’s another major step forward in creating a safe and vibrant nightlife downtown,” said Frank LaTorre, coordinator of the Hospitality Resource Partnership, a coalition of hospitality businesses, real-estate owners, residents, security personnel and other downtown stakeholders.

Chirped Lewis Dana, president of the 116 Chestnut St. Condo Association, “This is indeed going to make Providence a better place to live, work, and, yes, go to bars.”

Efforts to win an outright ban on under-21s in bars and nightclubs have failed in the state legislature over the years. But, with the support of Mayor Angel Taveras, the partnership this year was successful in winning passage of a more narrow measure, which was sponsored by Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski, D-Providence.

A co-sponsor, Rep. Joy Hearn, D-Barrington, preferred an outright ban.

“If we are serious about preventing underage drinking, we can’t let those who repeatedly serve minors continue to invite them into their clubs,” she said Tuesday in a statement endorsing the legislative compromise.

The Board of Licenses already has the power to take away a liquor license, but is reluctant to put entrepreneurs out of business and their employees out of work. LaTorre said a prohibition against under-21s can be a useful half-measure between a slap-on-the-wrist fine and a suspension or revocation of a license.

The new law applies statewide, but only to holders of a nightclub license — a specialized license created by the General Assembly in 2002 at an earlier stage of Providence’s long-running campaign to get a grip on its nightlife downtown and in the Jewelry District. It was not immediately clear if any municipality other than Providence opted to adopt the N license.

Although nightclub proprietors insist that they do not serve minors, critics including the police point out that minors, nevertheless, manage to get drinks. Observers report the young people also sometimes drink inside and outside their cars or on party buses before going into clubs.

Andrew J. Annaldo, License Board chairman, and others say minors tend to drink to excess and cause a disproportionate amount of the trouble with fighting, public intoxication, littering and other antisocial behavior. LaTorre said the Hospitality Resource Partnership has been focusing on underage drinking and wants the message out “that we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.”

There would be “an 80-percent reduction in the problems” if under-21s were not allowed into bars and clubs, Annaldo has said.

The new provision says liquor-license regulators may choose to ban minors from an errant nightclub all the time or only at certain times.

In addition to the N license and the selective prohibition on minors, leaders have taken a number of steps to minimize violence and other trouble arising from the cluster of clubs and bars downtown and in the Jewelry District.

Those include, among others, the creation of the Hospitality Resource Partnership, to set up a program and arrange a collaboration of special-interest groups for a better nightlife; the launch this month of an experiment to allow nightclubs to stay open an extra hour on busy weekends to let crowds out in a more orderly manner at closing time; and the imposition of stiffer penalties for public drinking.