Penn State pays bars, restaurants $186K not to sell alcohol in effort to quash Blarney Blowout-type parties

Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2014

State College, Pa., home of Penn State University, is happy with the results of actions taken this year to control the student-created pre-St. Patrick’s Day holiday, when 102 people were arrested — down from 244 last year.

That’s still nearly twice as many as the 55 people arrested in Amherst last Saturday during the so-called Blarney Blowout.

For officials at Penn State, however, it’s a victory they attribute to a multi-pronged effort that includes paying 34 downtown bars and restaurants to not sell alcohol on “State Patty’s Day,” which was designated for March 1 this year.

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That step cost the university $186,000 for stipends that ranged from $2,500 to $7,500. In addition, the community and university combined to pay $25,000 to five beer distributors that sell cases and kegs at retail outlets so they would stop business that day.

“That was probably the more significant strategy in reducing problems over the last two years,” State College Borough Police Chief Thomas King said in a telephone interview. “The problem is sustaining that over the long term because of the cost.”

The jury is still out on that. A town-gown task force meets next month to decide, said university spokesman Lisa M. Powers, though campus officials also consider the effort a success.

“The campus and the town have been vexed by State Patty’s Day since its inception, but we’ve found a formula that has whittled it away to the point that it is no longer the problem it once was,” Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said on the college’s online news site.

No riot at Penn State

The nature of the event and the crimes committed in the borough of State College, however, differ from the Blarney Blowout that Amherst experienced last weekend. Here, crowds of up to 4,000 partyers congregated at outdoor sites near off-campus housing complexes, blocking traffic, vandalizing property and throwing bottles, cans and snowballs. They were cleared by police with dispersal orders and pepper spray, and many of those arrested were charged with inciting a riot, failure to disperse from a riot and assault and battery.

Though State College has its share of those kinds of melees — night football games and the summer arts festival have created similar situations — State Patty’s Day is a party spread out over a 3- to 4-square-mile downtown area and arrests result mostly from public drunkenness, public urination, vandalism, thefts, excessive noise and some fights, King said. Rioting is not among the charges leveled.

Disturbance complaints may lead police to parties in apartments and student rental houses that may consist of 400 to 500 people, King said, but police are able to break those up without a violent reaction.

“We do have thousands of people excessively intoxicated and creating a lot of the minor crimes that really drive the community crazy,” he said, but not all in one place.

In the past, Penn State’s large number of fraternity and sorority houses were included among the party spots, but this year the Greek organizations agreed to ban alcohol from their premises March 1. That also was a major factor in keeping incidents down, King said. In addition, Penn State ordered that students living on campus limit overnight guests to one on the weekend of Feb. 28 to March 2. A student group also organized a community service day March 1.

Out-of-town trouble

Two thirds of those arrested this year were out-of-towners, King said, which indicates to him that State Patty’s Day is a destination event. “Many of the people we are dealing with have no ties to the community whatsoever,” he said. “What they come here for predominantly is to go from bar to bar or from frat to frat and have kind of a Mardi Gras atmosphere.”

Though UMass and town officials say about 50 percent of those arrested here were not local students, too, Amherst’s problems occurred away from the downtown area. In fact, Town Manager John Musante praised the bars that started the Blarney Blowout promotion three years ago, McMurphys Uptown Tavern and Stackers Pub, for taking successful measures this year to control their clientele. Few incidents occurred downtown March 8.

He expressed skepticism that a pay-not-to-sell alcohol initiative is the answer here.

“We’re happy to explore the concept more,” Musante said, but “the strategies we examine need to be conscious of the Amherst reality.”

UMass officials have not discussed such an approach, said spokesman Edward Blaguszewski.

“We would not want to speculate on it,” he said. “It is not among the range of things we are looking at,” though he declined to say yet what those are.

Blaguszewski, who once worked at Penn State, said the differences between State College and Amherst cast doubt for him on whether such a plan would be relevant here. Penn State’s campus, he said, is contiguous with the downtown and the commercial center is far larger than Amherst’s.

“One of the questions we would need to examine is what is the relative influence of the bars on what happened here. In my observation and what the police have said is that the event downtown with the bars was managed well.”

The bars’ role

When the Blarney Blowout was first held as a daytime, pre-St. Patrick’s Day promotion by Stackers and McMurphy’s bars in 2012, patrons spilled out into the downtown streets vomiting, urinating and accosting passersby. But at the urging of town and police officials, the bars established a ticketing system and put a cap on capacity, which has erased those problems.

Now the problems have moved to neighborhoods closer to campus.

“What’s happened is this thing has grown in three years,” Blaguszewski said, “and now it’s owned by a minority of students, spread by social media, and a lot of outsiders come.”

Blaguszewski said that when the bars started promoting a Blarney Blowout day the Saturday before spring break with prize giveaways and green beer three years ago, UMass officials warned that it was a bad idea. “We still don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.

But if the bars stopped doing it now, would that help?

“Maybe,” Blaguszewski said. “It certainly couldn’t hurt, but we’re also in a different place in terms of what the event has become.”

Multiple phone calls by the Gazette to about a half dozen downtown area bar owners — including to Stackers Pub and McMuphy’s owners Brian Stahl and Thomas Murphy — were not returned. One bar owner who did pick up the phone declined comment.

In an interview earlier this week, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said asking bars and restaurants to cease alcohol sales for a day is an idea worth considering. He also said, however, that Amherst establishments are known for abiding by the state’s liquor laws. “Amherst has one of the best records in the state for not selling to underage youths,” he said.

More manpower

King, State College’s police chief, said his department knows what Amherst police were up against in facing huge, unruly crowds Saturday. He said that his officers have faced riots, most notably when Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired in 2011. He said football games and a summer arts festival have also brought the kinds of massive, out-of-control gatherings Amherst saw.

But unlike Amherst, where 22 of its 45 officers were on standby with UMass and state police on Saturday, King says State College fields all 65 of its officers, plus state and campus police deployed for a force of up to 125 officers, when anticipating such events.

State College has a population of about 40,000. Amherst’s is about 38,000.

King said Penn State clamps down on students arrested for serious crimes such as inciting a riot and assault and battery, and that has helped.

Powers, the Penn State spokeswoman, said the university has “an excellent town-gown relationship with the borough officials.” She said the Student Conduct office deals with arrests on its own, regardless of how it is resolved in court.

“Students who may be found not guilty by the courts can be held responsible by our Student Conduct office for violating the student code of conduct,” she said. Sanctions, based on a number of factors, range from community service to suspension to expulsion, she said.

Penn State and State College also have a town-gown committee to deal with the issue of problem drinking, just as UMass and Amherst do.

King likes the way it works.

“I think the sanctions by Penn State and our courts and all the steps we’ve taken have really helped alleviate problems.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at


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