Wendler says no to alcohol at Turley Park Sunset Concerts

By Gus Bode

SIUC Chancellor Walter Wendler thinks alcohol creates unnecessarily rowdy behavior at the Sunset Concerts in Turley Park, and he’s asking the Carbondale City Council to prohibit alcohol at the 24-year-old tradition.

The council votes Tuesday night at the Carbondale Civic Center on whether to allow alcohol for the three Sunset Concerts scheduled at Turley Park this summer. The well-loved events, which usually attract about 2,500 students and community members, are joint ventures between the city and the University. Three concerts are performed at Turley, the others on the lawn of Shryock Auditorium.

Wendler said the University will allow alcohol at Shryock, but after he heard complaints from residents who live near Turley Park, he decided to request that the council ban alcohol there. He said he’s heard no such complaints about behavior at Shryock.

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I’m trying to set a high standard of behavior with the students here, Wendler said. Especially in times of budgetary setbacks, it is particularly important to me to look at the things we do and how it reflects the culture of our college.

The council will also be presented with a petition of about 300 signatures of residents who want the council to nix alcohol at the concerts.

Wendler, who came to SIU from Texas last July, said he’s never attended a concert but has heard complaints from residents about public urination, littering and alcohol abuse. If the concerts are family-friendly, he questioned, should those behaviors be allowed?

Eliminating alcohol from the Sunset Concerts was tried one summer in the mid 1980s. The effect was disastrous, said George Whitehead, the former park district director. Typical attendance at the events is about 2,500 per concert. That summer, the attendance at all four concerts totaled about 800 people. Alcohol wasn’t banned at Shryock that year, and turnout there was fantastic.

People want the ability to bring a six-pack of beer or a bottle or wine and cheese and socialize with each other, Whitehead said. But when you make a big deal out of it and don’t allow it, people think it’s not worth the time and effort.

Whitehead said he’s always loved the town-gown combination of students and community members in the audience and said Carbondale is one of the few places in the Midwest that offers music at a free outdoor venue.

Jeff Doherty, city manager, has heard the same concerns about littering and public urination from residents, and he said they are legitimate. He said there have been behavior problems in the past, but that it’s important to remember that those incidents involve just a few.

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Instead of banning alcohol, he said, the city and University should work on targeting those who create problems.

Overall, it’s a very positive event, Doherty said. The concerts are part of summertime in Carbondale, a time when both the Carbondale community and the campus community come together.

Brad Cole and Mike Neill, both members of the City Council, have supported alcohol at the concerts in the past, and both said it’s likely they will do so this year, too. They said it is important to remember that only three days are in question.

Cole and Neill acknowledge there have been problems in the past, but said the overall environment is community-oriented.

Neill said his children often played on the playground while the musicians performed, and Cole said it is common to see both children and senior citizens at the concerts.

When there aren’t any problems, these are great events for Carbondale to bring the community together, Cole said. This is what makes Carbondale a great place.

Maggie Flanagan, a city councilwoman, said she did not want to comment on how she would vote this year, but noted that she had supported alcohol at the concerts all her years on the council and perceives a family-type atmosphere at the events.

That was the intent of one of the original creators, John Corker, who also served as director of the Student Center for 19 years. Carbondale and University residents needed something to do in the summer, and the Sunset Concerts provided the perfect solution, he said.

He said Sunset Concerts are already family-friendly. The event takes place from 7 to 9 p.m., a factor Corker said keeps people from viewing it as a party-type atmosphere.

When you go, you see people singing, you see kids running and dancing, Corker said. People are mellow.

Without alcohol, Corker said, attendance would be guaranteed to drop drastically.

It’s going to kill the program, he said.

John Yow, a former member of the City Council, voted against alcohol all 12 years he was on the council. His name is one of the 300 on the petition submitted to the current council.

The way he sees it, if attendance drops fine. The people that like the music will still come, he argues.

If they only come to drink alcohol, then we don’t need them, Yow said. It sorts out the drinkers from the people who want to enjoy the music.

Wendler said if attendance drops because of a ban, he is prepared to deal with it.

I would rather fund an event for a smaller crowd where people feel comfortable, Wendler said.

It’s just not the place. We should not be exposing and condoning alcohol to our young people, Yow said. We’re turning our parks into beer gardens.

That’s not how Abigail Wheetley, a junior in English, sees it. She takes her two children to Turley Park and said she feels comfortable with the environment there.

Everybody comes, people bring their kids, their couches, their pets, Wheetley said. It’s just fun to be outside, enjoying the music and being social.

Gary Egan, executive director of the Student Programming Council, a sponsor of the event, said he’s known students to take off work to attend the concerts and plan on them weeks in advance.

The atmosphere is unique, he said. You see families on blankets, students, older people a wide array of both community members and students.

To him, students have come to expect Sunset Concerts, and alcohol is a natural extension of that.

It’s like saying they’re going to take Campus Beach or Giant City Park, Egan said. It’s an expectation of a Carbondale summer.

But Wendler said summers in Carbondale would go on just fine without the tradition of alcohol at Sunset Concerts.

It’s fine if it is tradition, Wendler said. But I am not prepared to give funds to a tradition if it doesn’t uphold the high standards of the University.

Reporter Alexa Aguilar can be reached at [email protected]

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