Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It’s one in the morning — how sweet!

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Officials in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, are considering a new way to reduce violence and other problems at bar-closing time: handing out chocolate. (Seriously! They say it lessens the likelihood of fights. Maybe it’s because eating chocolate triggers the production of endorphins, the brain chemical some call “natural opiates” that make people feel happy and relaxed. Or maybe it’s just hard to punch someone while holding a piece of candy in your hand.)

The NZ idea is based on success with a similar initiative in the English seacoast tourist town of Bournemouth, where businesses and city officials have devised ways to make nightlife both safer and more fun. It comes in the wake of an announcement by a group of local bar owners that “the behavior of a small minority of drunken youths threatened the future” of the downtown “party zone,” according to the Wellington Dominion-Post newspaper.

As Portland continues to grapple with managing the Old Port’s nightlife (see “Growing Pains,” January 27, 2006, and “The Freakin’ Weekend,” February 17, 2006, both by Sara Donnelly), we might consider making like the Kiwis and stealing a couple ideas from Bournemouth (pop. 160,000).

We’ve heard of a couple of their concepts before, specifically getting better support for an all-ages venue and having a night bus to get people home safely — and quickly (see “Ideas From Away,” by Jeff Inglis, January 5). And we actually have in place another one — HomeRunners, which drives you and your car home if you’ve been drinking. (Bournemouth’s service uses compact scooters that fit in the trunk, rather than a second car, like HomeRunners does.)

But there are some new ideas that could work, too, and are worth at least talking about here in Portland:

Number one, of course, would be the chocolate giveaway (though with Fuller’s Gourmet Chocolates gone from Wharf Street, the epicenter will by default have to be Old Port Candy on Fore Street instead). Also:

Having social-service agencies send counselors to bars, to offer support to people in need.

Getting the City Council to grant some (or any) late-night licenses (possibly without alcohol, but letting people hang out and maybe eat something), to both spread the mass release of revelers across several hours, and to let people wind down the night in a more relaxed way.

Asking bars to voluntarily agree to a minimum drink price (so no participating bar will offer specials cheaper than that amount), to reduce binge drinking of cheap booze.

But let’s just start with the chocolate. In England at least, the cops like it, the bars like it, the local government likes it, and we can only assume the staggering drunks getting the handouts like it. We know we would.