Greasy McKinley And Other Chaos-Busters – December 15, 2011
Kevin L. Hoover
PLAZA – Maybe if we put up fences around the Plaza’s center and perimeter, establish checkpoints at all the corners, close the bars, hold a battle of the bands and coat McKinley in grease, we can have a Halloween and New Year’s downtown without a near-riot or worse.
Those were some of the ideas floated during a brainstorming session on downtown holiday excess abatement hosted by the City Council Wednesday, Nov. 30.
Police Chief Tom Chapman offered the Arcata Police Department perspective with photos and YouTube videos, some shot by the Plaza abusers themselves.
One of the videos, taken from a vantage point atop McKinley, depicted seething masses of Plazagoers primed up and partying.
“It’s a lot different from the festivals that we have,” Chapman remarked dryly.
New Year’s Eve and particularly Halloween have become dangerously intense over the past three years, requiring massive law enforcement response that still doesn’t meet the challenge to public safety.
In 2008, APD called for mutual aid from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, University Police, Eureka Police, Yurok Tribal Police and Trinidad PD to help deal with the public intoxication, fights and assaults.
2009 was similar, but included two arsons, an officer hit in head by a beer bottle and flying fireworks.
This year featured more than 25 arrests. “It was quite the show,” Chapman said. As far as sheer destruction, he said, “This was the worst we’ve seen it.”
The statue of McKinley, he said, is a “rallying point that engages people. Everyone’s pushing towards the middle.”
By 9:30 to 10 p.m., Chapman said, officers are “overwhelmed,” and it’s no longer safe for them to be in the crowd estimated this year at 3,000.
Fueling the fearful, feral folderol is a mix of alcohol, young adults and a party atmosphere with Halloween masks that lend anonymity.
“Some people have a feeling of lawlessness and that they can do whatever,” he said. “In the bigger picture, we have to come up with a different strategy. We have to rein in some of the behaviors.”
As the Plaza becomes a resource sinkhole with cops trying to keep a lid on things, Chapman noted, the rest of the town continues to generate calls and crimes, from loud parties to DUIs.
Former City Councilmember Paul Pitino spoke in favor of an alcohol service fee or “stool tax.” This would be a surcharge on alcohol served at the bars, with revenues used for more enforcement and education. “The people that sell the most alcohol are affected the most by it,” Pitino said.
Chapman said that Prop 26 made it so that an alcohol service fee would required two-thirds voter approval.
Hotel Arcata Manager Diane Cutshall said the Plaza problems aren’t confined to the two holidays. The noise beleaguered hotel fields complaints from patrons virtually on a nightly basis.
“We have that same issue every night for those four bars,” Cutshall said. “Don’t think of it two days a year. It’s every single night.”
Peg Blake, vice president of Academic Affairs at Humboldt State University, said that HSU students should realize that Arcata is their community, and help take responsibility for it.
But, Blake added, that’s only a partial solution. “It is not just HSU students,” she said. “Three arrests were HSU students. It’s not just an HSU problem. The solution is not just HSU.”
She suggested involvement by College of the Redwoods and other public schools plus service training for bartenders. “Let’s look at the whole picture,” she said.
Another woman suggested keeping a “family-friendly focus,” with wholesome diversions like decorating McKinley, “large-scale games,” multi-cultural dancers and a litter-collection contest.
Benjamin Bowles, who lives in a Plaza apartment, said that for HSU students, the Plaza is synonymous with boozing. “The culture of the Plaza is one to go to and drink,” he said. “Parties go till 11 p.m., then the idea is to go to the Plaza… My age group doesn’t go to the Plaza at night for any other reason than to drink.”
Robin Hashem said the Plaza has become the county’s party zone, and needs an image upgrade. “It’s endemic now,” she said.
Tom Bronzo said the Plaza perma-party can only be abated with physical measures. “Fence off the inside. Police. Spread fertilizer. Stop traffic at night,” he said. “They’re 20-something kids, that’s what they’re going to do. Figure out a way to live with it. Close everything down. Other than that I don’t see a solution to it.”
Arcata Main Street Director Jennifer Koopman said a counterprogramming event might work, but that it would cost $40,000 and her organization couldn’t handle it alone.
Former City Councilmember Julie Fulkerson commended Arcata Police and the City. Her advice: “Reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Make arrestees clean city streets. It just seems logical to me.” She said an alcohol service fee is “so obvious.”
Chapman said he was working with the D.A.’s Office to make sure violators perform Arcata community service.
“Where are the students?” Pitino said, noting their lack of representation at the meeting. “We need to have them be a third of the leg of the chair here so we can get something going on.”
“The students aren’t here, but also the bar owners aren’t here,” said Hotel Arcata’s Sarah Knight. “They rarely show up and take accountability.” She said that even the Oysterfest is “another nightmare for us.” She urged an end to alcohol booths.
Cutshall suggested a battle of the bands event could eclipse the wilder partying.
Mayor Susan Ornelas said the City Council is trying to get a group comprised of City officials, citizens and Humboldt State representatives together to formulate creative and responsible responses. City, HSU & community committee. “I would like it to have many legs,” she said.
“We’re just going to have to come up with a real solid management plan,” said Councilmember Shane Brinton. He suggested use of fencing and barricades for crowd management, and a large permitted event with substantial security at the Community Center or D Street neighborhood Center.
Public Works Director Doby Class spoke with rare emotion, calling the Halloween aftermath, “Horrible… I was sick in my stomach. Clearly something has to be done.”
Class feared for the safety of the people climbing McKinley, and for the statue itself. “It’s a 105-year-old piece of art,” he said. “Everyone needs boundaries and there are obviously none any more.”
Chapman said that in New Orleans prior to Mardi Gras, that city greases poles to prevent climbing. “I’m just throwing it out there,” Chapman said, conceding that there may be liability issues.
Councilmember Michael Winkler: liked the idea of a security fence around the Plaza’s center, but Ornelas said it would “just incite the crowd to tear it apart. Grease would make it a challenge.” She suggested covering McKinley in pillows, making him “a huge, pillow-covered ghost.”
Winkler wanted the alcohol service fee idea placed on the ballot, but Councilmember Mark Wheetley was skeptical of the idea.
City Manager Randy Mendosa said the City will form a Plaza interest group which includes broad representation.