Amherst takes steps to control downtown partying Saturday tied to early St. Patrick’s Day celebration
AMHERST — A year after downtown streets were filled with early St. Patrick’s Day revelers, town officials are working to make sure the partying doesn’t get too wild this time around.
Because spring break means most local college students are out of town for St. Patrick’s Day, enterprising bar owners have for about 14 years invited students to an event known as Blarney Blowout. This year it is set for Saturday beginning at 11 a.m.
But last year’s event created chaos downtown. There were reports of people vomiting and urinating in public, publicly consuming alcohol and accosting families and children. As a result, town officials are taking steps to ensure everyone is able to shop and dine in peace in the town center this year.
“To have a drunken street festival atmosphere downtown doesn’t benefit anyone,” said Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe.
The bars offer green beer, giveaways and free food during the event.
“We need to make downtown an area welcoming to everyone,” said Alex Krogh-Grabbe, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District. “It’s unacceptable for this kind of atmosphere to take over downtown.”
O’Keeffe, Town Manager John Musante and Police Chief Scott Livingstone met with the owners of Stackers Pub and McMurphy’s Uptown Tavern, the North Pleasant Street bars that jointly sponsor Blarney Blowout, to find ways to improve the event.
“They have been so cooperative and collaborative with the town on this,” O’Keeffe said. She commended bar owners Michael McLaughlin and Thomas Murphy for their willingness to find solutions.
Livingstone said there are ways to make the popular event palatable for everyone.
“They’ve been very receptive to the fact we want to curtail undesirable behavior,” Livingstone said.
Krogh-Grabbe said he is concerned that people may stay away from other downtown businesses Saturday because they fear encountering intoxicated people on the streets.
“We want to reverse that. We want to bring people downtown,” Krogh-Grabbe said.
O’Keeffe said one approach is to limit the appeal of loitering.
Stackers Pub and McMurphy’s will have two seatings, one at 11 a.m. and the second at 1 p.m. In each case, just 100 tickets are being sold, which is considered the full combined capacity for the two bars, Livingstone said. Those who don’t have tickets are being advised not to bother waiting outside as they won’t be let in.
Those who have purchased tickets are being told not to line up more than 30 minutes before the doors open for their seating.
“This is trying to prevent the long line of kids hanging out that causes a lot of concern for people,” O’Keeffe said.
Last year, police summoned 10 people to court for having open containers on public streets. Most of those arrested were caught trying to drink while in line.
Livingstone said the bars have also promised their own security inside and outside and will not admit anyone who is already intoxicated, even if the customer is holding a ticket.
Livingstone said he spoke to other bar owners as well because putting a strict cap on those attending the Blarney Blowout could cause a ripple effect, prompting partygoers to seek out other downtown bars, including The Pub, The Spoke and High Horse.
Krogh-Grabbe said the discussions seem to have been productive.
“I look forward to this event not being a problem this year because of these measures,” Krogh-Grabbe said.
Still, town officials expect some excessive consumption of alcohol is likely. Last year, 14 people were transported by fire department ambulances during the Blarney Blowout weekend.
Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said the medical calls related to intoxication were in the afternoon and early evening, which is several hours earlier than a normal Saturday.
“We’re ready for it. We’ll have a full shift,” Nelson said.
Musante said he appreciates the multi-faceted attempt to head off problems, with the town receiving support from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College.
“We are taking steps we think will reduce and hopefully eliminate any issues related to people not at establishments,” Musante said.
UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said people in the dean of students office and the Office of Fraternities and Sororities will be notifying off-campus students that there may be people emerging from the Blarney Blowout bars looking for places to continue partying.
While the university is working with Amherst police to reduce potential off-campus problems, Blaguszewski said UMass is not endorsing the Blarney Blowout.
“This is an event not organized by the university, supported by the university or encouraged by the university,” Blaguszewski said.
O’Keeffe said in many ways the St. Patrick’s Day drinking is out of the control of the bars, the town or the university. While it began as a bar concept, she said, the events are part of a national celebration.
But how much impact they cause could also be largely dependent on the weather. O’Keeffe said snow or rain might diminish the crowds.
Livingstone said he is hoping for the best.
“If the behavior doesn’t change, we may have to put more stringent measures in place,” he said.