Can expansion of liquor licenses, alcohol prevention efforts co-exist in peace?

Editor's note: This story has been updated to list 1,008 as the number of traffic deaths last year in Illinois.

A suburban downtown sees too many rowdy bar patrons getting into fights, driving erratically, sullying the city's reputation and setting a dangerous example - all at a time of heightened concerns about drug and alcohol addiction.

There's a crackdown.

Officials tighten liquor ordinances in the city code. Cops step up enforcement. Youth groups put the spotlight on efforts to prevent drug and alcohol abuse. Crime stats improve, and so does anecdotal evidence about the downtown atmosphere.

Then something shifts.

Maybe it's a request for a new liquor license, or a new type of license. It's something innocuous, maybe a hair salon hoping to sell glasses of wine or a restaurant that wants to offer BYOB.

Then it's something else: a paint-and-sip shop or a coffeehouse that wants to add liquor to its menu, and suddenly, it seems alcohol is a basic part of the business environment.

The very towns that instituted crackdowns - such as Naperville after the fatal stabbing of a teacher and a fatal DUI crash, and St. Charles after unruly bar behavior became a campaign issue - suddenly find themselves working to make liquor more readily available in places where it hasn't typically been found.

"That's something we are all challenged by; the loosening, if you will, of regulations around alcohol," said Margaret Polovchak, manager of prevention services at OMNI Youth Services in Buffalo Grove.

Pharmacies across the region, movie theaters in Batavia and Mount Prospect, gas stations,

  The Grassroots is part bar, part retail store that sells skateboards to funky T-shirts. Bartender Kevin Groenhof of Algonquin serves drinks from an old door to former Buffalo Grove native James Casaletto, who now lives in California. Mark Welsh/

specialty markets, antiques shops in Barrington, bike repair and rental shops in Grayslake, drive-through liquor stores in Kane County, and even a jewelry store in Batavia and a funeral home in Wheeling are among those now allowed to sell alcohol. Prevention experts say the increased availability could hamper efforts to keep teens away from alcohol; municipal leaders say they're not hearing many complaints.

Still, the prevalence of things like a mixed drink at the movies, a six-pack at the gas station or a cocktail at a funeral home feeds into the notion of community norms, prevention experts say - the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that convey what's OK and what's not.

"There are intentional and unintentional messages we send as a community and in families," said Matt Cassity, Community Alliance for Prevention coordinator with 360 Youth Services in Naperville, where he works with prevention director Karen Jarczyk.

Expanding liquor licenses is one of those behaviors that sends a signal, they say.

"Actions speak louder than words," Jarczyk said.

Specialty experience

In Naperville, City Prosecutor Kavita Athanikar said many new licensees are high-end specialty shops "catering to a consumer looking to have an experience or buy something they can't buy elsewhere."

"We don't think that type of business will appeal to someone underage," she said.

New trendy drink sellers such as a cider brewery, a park district-owned cafe along the downtown Riverwalk, a men's hair salon and several pharmacies aren't causing crime, she said; police report zero calls - ever - related to any of the city's 29 unusual liquor licensees.

"To me, the quality of the operators we have is much more important than the number or types of licenses," Mayor and Liquor Commissioner Steve Chirico said.

Broadening sales - as the city did in November 2015 when it allowed grocers to display alcohol throughout their stores instead of in a confined space - can help end the social "taboo" some young people may feel around alcoholic drinks.

"Opening it up makes it more normalized," Athanikar said.

But normalization, taken too far, can be a risk factor in increasing teen alcohol consumption and unsafe use by adults.

"This normalization in society could have the effect of decreasing the perception of harm," said Dr. G. David Bedney, senior health educator at Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale. "If kids think there is less harm, they show an increased use."

Open for business

The increase in licenses isn't rooted in an attempt to make alcohol available everywhere, suburban leaders say. It's based on efforts to be business-friendly in a post-recession period when entrepreneurs are breaking the mold.

"A lot of people have new ideas, younger ideas, and come in with proposals that you scratch your head to begin with, and then you find out that other towns are doing it and it's been successful," said Batavia Mayor and Liquor Commissioner Jeff Schielke, whose town recently licensed gas stations, the Goodrich Quality Theaters Randall 15 and K. Hollis Jewelers. "The world is changing, and we're trying to adapt."

Before the recession, there were effectively two types of liquor licenses: one for retail stores selling packaged goods and another for bars or restaurants selling drinks for consumption on site, said Jeff Lawler, village manager in Barrington, which is home to an antiques store with a liquor license and a bar that also combines a barber shop, general store and clothing shop.

The times began to change with the grocery stores. Upscale markets that wanted to sell beer or wine for shoppers to drink while they fill their carts started seeking licenses and changing the landscape of liquor control a few years ago, Lawler said. Then came what he calls the "personal service businesses," the hair salons and painting party shops that want to offer a classy wine or a cold one in addition to their main service.

Barrington now has 46 liquor licensees but hasn't seen an increase in underage drinking or other alcohol-related crime, Lawler said.

That could be because shops with newly minted alcohol privileges say they're not out to get anyone drunk or to unduly influence youth - just to provide a bonus that enhances their business.

Ten Friends Blow Dry & Style House locations in Deer Park, Glenview and Hinsdale have been selling wine by the glass and the rare bottle of beer amounting to roughly 5 percent of their business, owner Catherine Stoelting said. The newest location in Naperville is soon to start offering drinks, too.

The idea is to complement a high-end hair service, with imported Italian products, a head massage and hot towels, with "a nice glass of wine," creating "a really homey, comfortable place for our guests to hang out and be able to connect with friends," Stoelting said.

Temptation, truth

But what's relaxing for adults can be tempting for teens, especially when it involves alcohol.

"The more available it is, the more at risk our kids are for using and starting at a young age, which is really the greatest concern we have," said Polovchak with OMNI Youth Services.

To counter the increased availability, Polovchak said, OMNI and its prevention partners have tightened "social host" ordinances in the Northwest suburbs, pushing towns to give stricter and more obvious penalties for parents or adults who provide alcohol and a place to drink it to anyone underage.

Prevention agencies also work to get out the truth: that most teens aren't drinking, and the number who are has been decreasing over time.

In the Wheeling Township area, 75.5 percent of high school students and 90 percent of middle school students responding to this year's Illinois Youth Survey, which is given statewide, said they had not used alcohol in the past 30 days.

In the Naperville area this spring, 81 percent of all students responding to the same survey said they had not consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, which is up from 77 percent in 2014 and 66 percent in 2003, the first year for which 360 Youth Services has data.

The positive trend is encouraging to those running prevention campaigns, including 13 suburban partnerships that have Drug-Free Communities funding from the federal government.

"The majority (of teens) have very healthy attitudes," Polovchak said. "We help reinforce those kinds of messages."

Driving dangers

As alcohol becomes more present, there are dangers for adults, too - driving dangers, said Rita Kreslin, executive director of the Schaumburg-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.

No matter the type of business offering alcohol, Kreslin said, operators need to be conscious not to overserve customers and to encourage anyone who has gone over the edge to get a safe ride home.

Kreslin said thirty percent of traffic deaths each year are alcohol-related, and last year there were 1,008 traffic fatalities in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. So towns providing additional liquor licenses need to make sure their oversight steps up as well, she said.

Suburban officials say it already has, and their police departments are conducting compliance checks and making sure new licensees get the required bartender training for their employees.

But for Bedney at the Robert Crown Center, it all comes down to one tenet shared since alcohol abuse prevention began: "Just because something is legal," he says, "does not mean that it is safe."

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Naperville decides alcohol OK at hair salons

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