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Penn State Officials Take Booze Out Of ‘State Patty’s Day’ Mix

Saint Patrick's Day is more than three weeks away, but this weekend near the Pennsylvania State University main campus a similar celebration is happening called "State Patty's Day."

While it has some of the trappings of the Irish holiday, for most it's just an excuse to get drunk and party.

This year, university and Borough of State College officials hope to discourage participation in State Patty's Day. They're paying downtown stores and bars not to sell booze.

State Patty's Day started in 2007 when the official holiday landed during Penn State's spring break. Students organized an alternative that has grown into an annual tradition.

State College Police Chief Tom King says the unofficial celebration attracts college students from all over the region and that has become a problem.

"It's our busiest 36 hours of the year," says King. "It's busy with the fights, physical assaults, sexual assaults, drunk driving, vandalism, people throwing up and urinating in people's yards."

So Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs at Penn State, came up with a solution. Working through a formal anti-drinking partnership with the town of State College, they approached local bars.

"We asked if they might agree to an arrangement which would allow for an alcohol-free experience on State Patty's Day," says Sims. More than three-dozen downtown businesses said yes.

In exchange, Sims says they'll get a check from the town and the university.

"The Partnership Against Dangerous Drinking is making $5,000 payments to each of those establishments," says Sims.

That's about $190,000 in payments. The bulk of the money comes from parking revenue earned from previous State Patty's Days. But $5,000 doesn't cover the profits some bars would earn. Backers argue this is about more than profit.

"What I was excited about was everybody was able to put their individual needs and views aside to benefit State College and Penn State," says Jennifer Zangrilli, the director of operations at Dante's Restaurants and president of the Tavern Association of State College.

Not everyone was happy about signing on though.

"None of us in our company agree with the policy," says Tom Baron, president of Big Burrito Restaurant Group, which owns a Mad Mex restaurant and bar in downtown State College.

As more businesses signed on Baron says he felt pressure to do the same.

"We knew that we'd make enemies with the township and with the university and we didn't want to be that way," he says.

Baron argues his employees are trained to handle rowdy guests and he worries partiers will take their State Patty's Day celebrations somewhere less safe. Local police say they're ready for that and will have extra patrols at apartment complexes and other places where parties may relocate. And, as always, they'll be on the lookout for underage drinkers.

"It just seems like they're really trying to control us too much," says Penn State Freshman Kevin Fischer, "I'm still going to go out."

It's not just current students upset by plans to reign in State Patty's Day. 2006 Penn State graduate Justin Eleazer lives in State College and contends this is more about the university's image than safety. "And since [university officials] gave themselves several black eyes in the last year, they're trying to clean up this," says Eleazer.

Still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State has launched a campaign to burnish its image. But school officials say they were concerned about State Patty's Day well before the Sandusky issue came along.

The big question now is whether paying bars and stores not to sell alcohol on State Patty's Day will work. If it does, in future years the university and borough hope to turn State Patty's Day into an official celebration -- one that is about more than just getting drunk.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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