Carbondale prepares for Polar Bear

While Chancellor Rita Cheng warns the university community about alcohol safety, employees at one local bar are removing pool tables to provide extra space for the busy weekend.

“Polar Bear” and “Puck Finch” are day-long drinking events some Carbondale bars have planned for Saturday, where customers will be able to order drinks starting at 10 a.m. Although both have been held in recent years, past results from the events led officials in the community to emphasize how dangerous drinking can be.

In emails sent to faculty, staff and students, Cheng advised students to take safety precautions and emphasized that the university does not condone the events. In a letter mailed to parents, Cheng shared the same advice, but added suggestions such as parents inviting their student home for the weekend.

Cheng said she sent the emails after staff asked her to join in on the message that high-risk drinking activities can be harmful to students’ health. In the past, she said, there have been incidents such as students passing out in the front lawns of homes that have caught the attention of university staff.

“We were concerned that students may not even be realizing that they could be putting themselves at risk,” she said.

For some students, the letter Cheng sent to parents seemed surprising. She said many college presidents and chancellors have taken similar steps to advise parents of events that could affect their children.

“If you look at the language of the letter, it wasn’t intrusive,” she said. “It wasn’t in any way judgmental. It was really about ways that … as older adults in students’ lives, we can all have a conversation about safety.”

Kelsey Murbarger, a senior from Fairfield studying criminology, said she was angry when she discovered her parents had received a letter warning of the events.

“I feel like we are all adults here and that she should not be tip-toeing in our lives and treating us like children,” she said.

Although university spokesman Rod Sievers said he did not know how much the cost was to send hard copy letters to parents, he said the mail version of a message was chosen over email because people are more likely to read it.

“The university isn’t going to put a price on safety,” he said. “It’s money well spent if it will help keep students safe.”

Some students were not bothered by the message to the university community.

Kevin Campbell, a freshmen from Carbondale studying computer science, said he found the email to be informative. The chancellor stated the number of arrests as a result of the events in 2011 was almost 100.

“I saw the fallout last year, and I don’t want to be a part of that number,” he said.

Carbondale Police Chief Jody O’Guinn said there were 59 underage drinking arrests on the dates of the 2011 events, which was down from the 76 arrests in 2010. In 2009, there were 12 arrests for underage drinking.

Although the university community has been warned about the possibility of arrests, most of the people police encountered in 2011 were not SIU students but were from out of town, O’Guinn said.

Cheng said participants from out of town who are students at another university and are arrested may be subject to punishment at their own school.

“If a student is arrested, we let their student affairs people know, because they may also have an opportunity to talk about what is going on,” she said. “So if a student vandalizes property on our campus, we will definitely call their university.”

Damage to property was an additional problem to underage drinking that police responded to last year. O’Guinn said public intoxication, damage to property, public urination, and property set on fire were a few of the various reasons for the 267 calls the department received for service. He also said in 2009 there were students who fell in the creek near Pinch Penny Pub and officers had to dive in and pull them out.

While residents can expect an increased presence of police patrolling, local establishments that will host the events are increasing their own staff.

James Karayiannis, General Manager at Pinch Penny Pub and founder of Polar Bear, said the business brings back a lot of former employees, some of whom travel from out-of-state, to work the 16-hour shift at the event. About  75 staff will be working Saturday, he said, and they are able to help with keeping the atmosphere safe.

“I understand that anytime you have events, people take fun to excess, whether it’s alcohol or otherwise, but as long as the event is enjoyed in moderation and responsibly, it is fun,” he said.

Karayiannis said Polar Bear started 11 years ago as an event when the beer garden is open on a winter day.

“At the time when we came up with the idea, ‘Survivor’ was getting popular,” he said. “A lot of reality shows were just starting to gain momentum, and there was a lot of ‘what will a human being do to test themselves for fun’ going on,” he said.

Since then, he said the establishment has worked to adjust the event. The first year, he said, Polar Bear was held on a Friday, until employees realized students were cutting class to attend. He said he also makes sure not to schedule the event on days when there are Saluki basketball games, because he does not want to take away from the university.

“It’s something that’s become a tradition for southern Illinois students, and it’s something they’re proud of, because not everybody has it,” he said. “Everybody has basketball, everybody has Halloween … nobody else has a Polar Bear party, at least not when we founded the idea.”

At the first event, Karayiannis said, there were a few hundred attendees. Over the past few years, he said, there have been at least a few thousand
visitors to Pinch Penny.

“It’s something we’re proud to host that we think brings a lot of tourism and entertainment dollars to southern Illinois that we probably alternatively wouldn’t see,” he said. “And we think it’s fun, and we hope that everybody enjoys it in moderation and responsibly.”

Responsibility on behalf of attendees is key to making the event happen in future years, O’Guinn said. If Polar Bear or Puck Finch reaches a similar state to Halloween activities in the past, which were restricted as a result of increased incident and crowd-control issues, O’Guinn said the events could be affected in future years.

“I think if we start seeing widespread disorder and damage then we will reach that point,” he said. “I don’t think it has and I hope that it will not. That’s why we let people know that we take this seriously.”

O’Guinn said it is not the business of the police to try and shut the event down. Instead, he said, by working to keep participants and the surrounding neighborhoods safe, they can help.

At Stix, Saluki Bar and Cali’s, where Puck Finch is to be held, managers say their open-door policy with police is something they have no problem with.

Sean Carr, general manager of the three establishments, said the chancellor’s concerns are the same as his and he doesn’t want any underage drinking arrests, or overindulging.

One of the positives of the events being held at the businesses, he said, is that students are drinking in a supervised environment, instead of at a party.

“What we provide isn’t just a place to do that, it’s a safe place to do that,” he said.

Saturday will mark the fifth year Puck Finch has been held.

DJ Hochmuth, manager at Stix, said the event started based on the fact that Pinch Penny Pub held Polar Bear.

“It’s just a huge day for Carbondale,” he said. “Not just for the students, but for past students and local businesses.”

Hochmuth said Stix started opening its doors hours earlier than usual, 10 a.m. — when Polar Bear begins — to cater to customers.

He said the bar reached maximum capacity in 2011, so this year the business will take its pool tables out for space.

Making adjustments to meet the fire marshal’s requirements isn’t the only way Hochmuth said the bar works to keep activities legal. Last year, Hochmuth said, 70 ID’s were taken from people at the door because they were fake or falsely used.

Before Hochmuth’s first event working at Stix in 2011, he said he didn’t really realize how much money other businesses on the strip made on that day.

James Cato, general manager at Jimmy John’s, said he has been preparing for the event for two weeks.

“It affects our business by 20-fold,” he said.

By increasing staff and supplies, he said, the business is working to serve the influx of customers this weekend. But the fact that the establishment doesn’t sell alcohol doesn’t mean it will remain incident-free.

“We’ve had fist-fights break out in the lobby,” he said. “But that happens on a normal weekend.”

As businesses and law enforcement in the community prepare, the Department of Public Safety on campus is also going to increase its staff on duty.

Todd Sigler, director of DPS, said one concern he has is that behavior at the event affects the university’s and an individual’s image.

“It’s about moderation, culture of responsibility, and being able to wake up the next day and be proud of the actions that you were involved in the previous day,” he said.

Sigler said he thinks the chancellor’s message oflooking out for one another is a very appropriate one. He said students can use the “buddy system” as well drinking in moderation to remain safe.

He said officers from DPS will be at a tent hosted by the Wellness Center at the corner of Wall and Grand to assist those in need of help.

Cheng said in addition to extra staffing in the residence halls, the university is working to keep Saturday safe by hosting alcohol-free events. She said there will be alternative activities at Student Center and Recreation Center, as well as water and food at tents for shelter and warmth and additional bus routes through the Saluki Express.

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