Some local bar owners aren't raising their glasses in tribute to the Fourth Avenue Street Fair. Instead, they are in a sober fight that is stirring up controversy.
A few owners of Fourth Avenue bars have raised concerns that the vendors who distribute beer on the streets during the fair are hurting the bars' business, says Daniel Matlick, president of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association (FAMA).
Leading the charge against on-street beer distribution is Scott Cummings, owner of O'Malley's on Fourth, who has called on the merchants association to restrict the vendors' locations—or consider not selling beer at all, Matlick says.
Neither option is viable for FAMA, officials say, because the street fairs are the association's primary source of revenue.
"Even small changes can cause large ripples when it comes to this monstrous ... event," Matlick says. "We could eliminate beer booths to appease the bars, and purge the food booths to help our restaurants, and accept no clothing booths to spare our retail stores. I think it's also safe to say we have plenty of neighbors who would rather not deal with all the traffic and cars blocking their driveways."
FAMA was caught off-guard with the criticism and had not realized beer booths were an issue for some bar owners, says Kurt Tallis, FAMA's events and marketing director.
"I was blindsided by this," he says. "We've had beer at this event for 42 years. I don't know what the problem is."
In an effort to resolve the feud brewing in his ward, City Councilmember Steve Kozachik met with FAMA officials and Cummings, who was accompanied by Jill Brammer, co-owner of Che's Lounge.
In the meeting, Cummings reportedly told Matlick that beer vendors are not serving alcohol properly, an issue Matlick says he has never noticed.
"We have server training prior to each fair and have never had a problem," Matlick says.
Bill Nugent, owner of The Shanty, says that beer vending at the street fairs is currently better than it's ever been, and he hasn't noticed any issues with Golden Eagle Distributors, which runs the beer-vending operation.
"They've probably done a better job than anyone," he says.
While no major changes were made to the Spring Street Fair, taking place April 1-3, the two sides agreed to meet before the Winter Street Fair in December, Brammer says.
"I did agree to bring this matter to our full board as an agenda item, well in advance of the Winter Street Fair," Matlick confirms.
Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin addressed a question as to whether or not the beer booths are legal, since the Fourth Avenue Street Fair does not put up physical barricades to restrict where alcohol can be sold and consumed. When bars and other alcohol-serving businesses have special events extending beyond the physical bounds of the establishment, they have to apply for a temporary extension of premises, which requires businesses to adhere to "a bounded boundary area," Rankin says.
The Fourth Avenue Street Fair would not fall under this law. The merchants association's special-events permit allows alcohol to be served within the boundaries of the special event—without those boundaries being established through physical barricades, Rankin says.
"Then they can serve within those boundaries," Rankin confirms.
Nugent knew that Cummings and Brammer had concerns about the beer booths, but he decided not to attend the meeting at Kozachik's office, he says, because he does not agree with their assessment that the beer booths hurt the bars' business.
"To me, it's six days out of the year," Nugent says. "It's not going to make or break me."
Even during those six days, Nugent says, he does not see a drop in business, and believes that restricting alcohol sales on the street "would hurt the flavor of the street fair."
Nugent says bar owners may have concerns about customers bringing outside alcohol into their bars. However, it's a problem he has never experienced at The Shanty.
Matlick says bar owners should keep the bigger picture in mind—the fact that the street fairs are important cultural experiences invaluable to Fourth Avenue businesses and patrons, Matlick says.
"Most merchants understand the significance of this major cultural event," he says. "We all do end up making some sacrifices (a few days) a year, but in the end, this allows FAMA to accomplish what it does for our community."
If more Fourth Avenue bar owners were to come forward with complaints, Matlick says FAMA would gladly consider moving its street fairs to a different location, such as downtown.
"Without a doubt, I'm sure if enough Fourth Avenue merchants are truly fed up with all the inconvenience, our downtown business allies would be glad to move the event and take over the ... revenue," he says.
It is a notion bar owners should take seriously, because the street fairs act as a marketing tool, bringing in countless dollars in revenue for businesses along Fourth Avenue, including the bars, Nugent says.
"I think some of us can forget that," he says. "I do think people should be careful about killing the golden goose."
Cummings did not respond to several drop-ins, nor did he return phone calls to O'Malley's and his corporate office.
Golden Eagle Distributors spokeswoman Michelle Garcia-Estrada says the company "does not have a comment at this time."