Maryville, Mo., is more college than many college towns, with nearly 7,000 students at Northwest Missouri State University pushing the city’s population to 17,000 when school is in session.
To say that many of those students aren’t pleased with the current course of city government would be an understatement.
They have long enjoyed uncommon freedoms in Maryville, like the ability to hang out with friends in bars when they’re age 19 or 20, though they can’t legally drink until they’re 21.
And while the campus is virtually dry with the exception of certain parking lots for tailgating, Maryville is the only college town in Missouri where people of legal drinking age can walk city streets with an open beer in hand.
But change is coming, starting with a City Council vote late last month that raised the age for entering a bar to 21, effective July 1.
“The bars allowing minors is really unique,” Northwest sophomore Lee Volmer said. “It gives a community sense because everybody gets to hang out at the same place when they want to go out.”
Sydnie Adler, another sophomore, said she doesn’t think the new bar age will slow underage drinking.
“Underage people do not get served at the bar,” Adler said. “If you’re not at the bar, you’re at a frat party or a house party and you’re going to get served there. I don’t think it’s going to help the safety of (the city) at all.”
Two more ordinances that would end public drinking and make it easier for police to shut down parties were on the agenda Monday night when the university’s president called for a timeout.
President John Jasinski asked the council to table its vote on the alcohol-curbing ordinances until after it had heard from the university community, including student leaders. A forum has been scheduled for Thursday evening on the campus.
Jasinski said he supports efforts to promote responsible drinking, but the latest proposals have students worried they may become the targets of overly tough enforcement by police.
“We want clarification on the intent of the ordinances, how they would be enforced and their potential impact,” Jasinski said.
He mentioned several alcohol abuse prevention programs already working on the campus.
Adler said she thought the entire debate was sending the wrong message about Northwest.
“It puts us in a bad light and makes us seem like a bunch of drunks and that we’re drinking way too much,” she said.
City officials say the motive behind setting new rules is primarily one of public health and safety for the entire community.
“The biggest health problem of 19- and 20-year-olds is alcohol,” Councilman Glenn Jonagan said. “There’s no reason why any political subdivision should support something that’s against the law.”
Maryville public safety officials said they recorded 145 alcohol-related offenses in 2013, “the bulk of which are minor-in-possessions,” said Lt. Deputy Director Ron Christian.
City efforts to tighten alcohol use laws began in July 2012 and included 16 months of research and discussion, Mayor Jim Fall said.
“It’s an intent to create a safer, healthier and more welcoming atmosphere for the community as a whole,” Fall said. “It’s an attempt to make life better for everyone in town.”
Officials with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism agree with Fall’s approach.
“There is no easy fix; you have to involve the community around the college,” said Aaron White, the institute’s program director for underage and college drinking prevention research.
Maryville police joined with city officials to develop the ordinances and said they had the personnel to enforce them.
“Underage drinking is a problem everywhere, but I think underage drinking is compounded in a college town because minors are attracted to being around college students,” said Keith Wood, director of Maryville’s police department.
He said research by his department found that most of the state’s major college towns, including Columbia, Kirksville, Joplin and Warrensburg, prohibit anyone under age 21 from being in bars and ban open containers of alcohol on the streets.
Warrensburg adopted an ordinance setting the bar age at 21 in 2007 after underage drinking, public drunkenness and alcohol-related violence became such a problem “it was like Mardi Gras in New Orleans on the weekends,” said Cpl. Tom Carey, Police Department spokesman. “Some college kids by the time they graduated had five minor-in-possession arrests.”
It was so bad, said Police Chief Bruce Howey, that in 2006 police made 500 liquor law violation and assault arrests on a single street.
“It was not uncommon to at 2 a.m. get an ‘all officers call’ to West Pine Street,” the city’s main bar street, he said.
Several officers were injured arresting drunken and out-of-control teenagers, Howey said.
Since adopting the 21-and-over ordinance, minor-in-possession arrests dropped 91 percent in downtown Warrensburg, Carey said. Assaults, fights and disturbances went from 161 in 2007 to 83 in 2011. Initially, nuisance party complaints escalated until the city tweaked its ordinance to give police more authority to shut down parties.
Northwest students and other community members fear Maryville’s proposed party ordinance would lead to overly aggressive enforcement. The measure would allow police to break up any gathering of 10 or more people for “triggers,” such as disturbing the peace, littering or fighting, without a complaint.
“It’s troubling that (the ordinances) are aimed at a particular demographic our student population,” said Tim Shipley, a 36-year-old candidate in the City Council election in April. “It can be viewed as an attack on them. ... The proposed ordinances will not, in any way, change behavior.”
The ordinances will be a big issue in the council election. Along with Shipley, Rachael Martin, 27, and Adam Switzer, 25, are running for two open seats.
“People always resist change. It’s hard to say, ‘We’re going to do this, this and this to be like everyone else when Maryville is not like everyone else,” Martin said. “There is no other place in this world that is just like Maryville, Mo. Our town is so small and our college is so big that the combination is so rare.
“I don’t think you can make our rules and ordinances just like everyone else.”