Dave Stone thought he was making a simple request to Meadville City Council back in April.
“I’ve been watching the City of Erie do Thursday night block parties and other communities do similar activities that provide a real economic stimulus to their communities,” Stone, the owner of Mickey’s restaurant and lounge on Park Avenue in downtown Meadville, told the Tribune. “My whole purpose was to try to stimulate the economy of downtown Meadville. In Erie, there are block parties every Thursday night. I just want to copy what they’re doing.”
Stone would just like to have guitar players outside on his deck, he continued. “Right now, if a guy puts in an outside amplifier to sing into, you’re in violation. We’d like to have bands play out there — and I don’t want to violate Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) regulations. We’d like to be able to call it ‘Music on Mill Run’ or something, since my deck extends across Mill Run. At the same time, we don’t want to keep the neighbors up. We’re very mild-mannered.”
“It’s not that simple” is the message Gary Alizzeo, the city’s attorney, delivered to council during its recent monthly work session.
According to Alizzeo’s report to council, the state’s Liquor Code of 1951, reenacted in 1987, and the PLCB regulations found in the Pennsylvania Code put strict regulations on amplified music. Originally, it was prohibited for loudspeakers to allow the sound of music or other entertainment to be heard on the outside of the licensed premises. Recently, however, the PLCB has broadened its interpretation of this requirement and now only prohibits noise from loudspeakers to be heard beyond the licensee’s property line.
In Meadville, Alizzeo added, the city’s nuisance/disorderly conduct laws would also apply.
This, Alizzeo told the Tribune after the meeting, applies to all municipalities — cities, towns, boroughs and townships — in Pennsylvania.
In Vernon Township, no steps have been taken to allow amplified music to be played outside bars because no one has asked, Stone, who serves as Vernon Township Manager, told the Tribune.
In West Mead Township, one application for a permit to build an outdoor stage was approved by the township’s zoning hearing board, but no steps were taken to secure authorization for amplified music from the PLCB, according to Township Secretary Jill Dunlap.
Amplified music outside
Municipalities are allowed to request an exemption from the PLCB noise regulations that would allow local licensees greater latitude regarding amplified music coming from their establishments, Alizzeo told council. Here goes:
1) The city files a petition with the PLCB in Harrisburg requesting exemption from the noise regulations regarding amplified music being heard off licensed premises for all licensees within an identifiable area in the city. This means, he explained, that the city must decide to take this action in the first place and also determine a specific area within the city to be exempted.
2) Prior to filing the petition, the city must pass a noise ordinance including descriptions of the area to be exempted; standards and definitions of acceptable noise types and levels within the city; and a mechanism for enforcement. Many cities, Alizzeo explained, use a distance regulation as a standard for permissible noise while others use decibel standards.
3) Upon receipt of the city’s ordinance and accompanying materials such as a map of the proposed area to be exempted, the PLCB will schedule a public hearing in Meadville presided over by a PLCB hearing examiner to gather public input on the proposed city noise ordinance. Then the PLCB will make its decision. Options include approving both the petition and the proposed exempted area; disapproving some or all of the plan or limiting the proposed area of the exemption if it’s found that granting the petition “would have an adverse effect on the welfare, health, peace and morals” of those living in the vicinity.
While several council members expressed reservations about pursuing what appears to be a lengthy and involved process in response to a request from a single business owner, especially since they cannot under Pennsylvania law restrict the area involved to that single bar, Councilmember Nancy Mangilo-Bittner said that she wants to find out what people think about the idea before council instructs city staff to expend the time and effort required to formulate some sort of concrete plan.
Council’s next public meeting is Wednesday at 6 p.m. in council chambers in the new city building on Diamond Park.
How Erie does it
Dave Rocco, special events coordinator for the City of Erie, told the Tribune Friday that Erie City Council passed an ordinance that established an entertainment district comprised by 70 blocks bounded by the Bayfront and 14th Street along a corridor extending approximately two blocks on both sides of State Street and took over the enforcement of noise responsibility within the district from PLCB and Pennsylvania State Police.
“In the Entertainment District, there can be bands outside with amplified music until 11 p.m.,” Christina Katen, assistant director of Erie Downtown Partnership, told the Tribune Friday. “We have tremendous support from the city,” she added. “Our mayor is very supportive.”
The City of Erie’s primary concern, according to Rocco, is that there’s enough clearance on nearby sidewalks for pedestrians. “Noise or anything of that nature would be handled by police through the noise ordinance,” he said. “We are very concerned about access — about crowds blocking the street.”
However, the passage of an ordinance wasn’t what makes Erie’s popular block parties happen.
Erie Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization put into place by the City of Erie in 2004, offers a number of programs aimed at improving the quality of life in the 70-block downtown district. The partnership’s efforts are funded in part by an assessment put into place by the city and described in the organization’s most recent financial statement as 0.25 percent of the taxable value of each property owner’s real estate within the district. Tax-exempt real estate property owners have an option to sign financial contribution contracts with the partnership or make financial contributions.
Entertainment programs run by the partnership include periodic bike nights, a total of 10 block parties on Thursday nights between Memorial and Labor days and various special events.
The process that results in Erie’s block parties begins in the spring of each year when individual bars submit applications to host a party. Each party involves the closing of exactly one city block and must raise money for a named charity; more than one bar on the same block can co-sponsor an application.
“The bar owners determine who the band will be and what the charity will be,” Katen said. “They also have to provide a certain number of volunteers to collect money on behalf of the charity from those attending the party.”
There also has to be a buy-in from all the property owners on the block in the form of signed petitions indicating approval, or at least a lack of objection. Block parties end at 10:30 p.m.
The applications are scored by an independent committee made up of what Katen termed “non-biased people whose businesses would not profit or benefit.” The identities of members of the committee is a closely-guarded secret, she added.
Once each application is scored, host bars are selected for each of the 10 block parties.
“We try to make it as fair as we possibly can,” Katen said. Host bars are announced in April.
This, according to Katen, isn’t cheap.
Music for Erie’s block parties, for example, doesn’t come from bars. Instead, bands hired by host bars perform on one of two city-owned “bandwagons,” a portable stage constructed on the bed of a tractor-trailer that is driven to the scene and parked in the street.
Bar owners pay for the sound system and the bandwagon, are responsible for making sure no one under age 21 is drinking anywhere on the block, and must provide additional security in addition to the four to six security officers — often off-duty police officers — provided by the partnership.
The bottom line, according to Katen, is that a major sponsorship from Erie Beer keeps the block parties financially afloat — and drawing as many as 5,000 people to a single block for a single Thursday night. That’s because the partnership is extremely careful to make sure anything its money is spent on benefits all the members in the district, not just the bars, Katen said. When non-bar property owners objected to funding block parties, alternate sponsorship was sought out and secured.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.
What to watch for next
Meadville City Council’s next public meeting is Wednesday at 6 p.m. in council chambers in the new city building on Diamond Park.