Raising the bar

Two years have gone by since a popular elementary school teacher was fatally stabbed in a downtown Naperville bar early one Saturday morning.

City officials report the late-night landscape, marred by lesser violence on numerous occasions since the stunning incident, has improved — but they want to do better. That could mean the introduction of entry fees that aren’t charged now, or perhaps calling it a day a bit earlier each night.

An array of adjustments were implemented involving law enforcement after 24-year-old North Central College graduate and Spring Brook Elementary School second-grade teacher Shaun Wild was killed during an argument in Frankies Blue Room on Feb. 4, 2012. Police patrols were beefed up, and bar owners tightened their vigilance over those who were at risk of being overserved.

Still, officials say, the city core where many of the popular nightspots are clustered could be a safer place, particularly late at night.

City Councilman Joe McElroy broached the topic this week, saying Wild’s murder was “the most disturbing event since I’ve been a council member,” despite the bar’s owner trying hard to keep the establishment completely safe. McElroy acknowledged that things have improved somewhat in the past couple of years.

“But I also know that the fighting continues, and as one person who was involved in this said, ‘As long as you have bars, you’re going to have bar fights.’ That’s just the way that works. We do everything we can to minimize it, but it’s still going to happen.”

Police Chief Bob Marshall said he has begun discussions with some of the downtown players, seeking their input on additional steps that could add new layers of security. He reported that he has met with representatives of the Naperville Development Partnership, the Downtown Naperville Alliance, the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, and restaurant owners. The chief said the conversations, which are in early stages, have focused generally on goals.

“We want to continue the results that we’ve had with all the successes, the 11 percent decrease we’ve seen in incidents in the downtown in 2013, compared to 2012,” Marshall said. “They’re going to be taking that back to their groups.”

Katie Wood, the Downtown Naperville Alliance’s executive director, said those talks haven’t gotten underway yet. She isn’t sure there would be enthusiastic support from the bar and restaurant operators for the idea of cover charges or mandated earlier last call, but she stressed that no one thinks a safer bar and restaurant district is a bad idea.

“I think we’ve made great headway since the tragic event of two years ago in making safety improvements downtown,” Wood said.

Meetings among “the key disciplines” that have focused on their shared best practices for optimal security have been very productive, she added.

“Certainly we want safety first,” she said.

The broad-based Downtown Advisory Commission, which doesn’t directly set policy, would support changes that bring improvement, according to Chairman Steve Rubin. He said this isn’t the first time the subject has come up, although his organization hasn’t talked about it recently.

“Certainly over the years there’s been a lot of discussion,” said Rubin, adding that the DAC has met with the Liquor Commission, which would dictate changes in closing times through adjustments in the regulations attached to liquor licenses. “We’re very concerned about protecting the culture of the downtown, keeping it safe.”

The atmosphere downtown develops organically through the day, Rubin noted, from the breakfast crowd through the work day to the bar scene that comes out late at night.

“Personally, I just think whatever we can do to maintain a secure downtown through all hours of the day, we’ll support it,” he said.

Input from the downtown bar and restaurant owners — who have invested heavily in the local hospitality industry, and whose businesses stand to be most directly affected by regulational adjustments involving their operations — matters more, he added.

“They’ve got to have an opportunity to weigh in on any changes,” Rubin said.

Councilman Bob Fieseler said he would support having last call moved up, with bars having to close earlier on weeknights than on Fridays and Saturdays.

“You talk about who is out between 12 and 1 now on a weekday. Maybe a thousand people, max?” he said. “And 144,000 residents, 58,000 households, have to subsidize what happens when 1,000 people — half of which at least are out-of-towners — are reveling, and in some cases creating more than mischief, violence, in our downtown.”

McElroy would prefer other remedies, suggesting that he hopes the business owners will devise safety enhancements that are a good fit for everyone.

“Really, the only real power that the City Council would have in this is the power to make everybody close sooner,” he said. “That would be a tough thing financially, and I hope we avoid having to do that.”