City's smoking-ban borders hurt, help some bars

July 3, 2012
Smoking bar
Chuck Fitzwater, owner of Silver Bullet Sports Bar in Beech Grove, has seen a rise in business. (IBJ Photo/Perry Reichanadter)

Brook Ferguson couldn’t be happier that the Lawrence Common Council passed a public smoking ban Monday that mirrors the one that took effect June 1 in Indianapolis.

Ferguson, manager of Weebles Bar & Grill on North Shadeland Avenue in Indianapolis, estimates he’s lost roughly 30 percent of his smoking clientele within the past month to neighboring establishments in Lawrence.

But come Oct. 1, when Lawrence’s smoking ban kicks in, Weebles and other Indianapolis bars on the east side will be on equal footing with those in Lawrence.

“We built a patio out back,” said Ferguson, who hoped the outdoor seating would keep smokers at his bar. “It’s helping some, but it’s not doing what it should be doing.”

About a month after Indianapolis’ smoking restrictions became law, Weebles is among several bars in the area that are seeing smoking customers flee to nearby taverns that aren't affected by the tougher law.

That’s because the Indianapolis ban doesn't include bars in Beech Grove, Lawrence, Speedway and Southport even though they are in Marion County.

About a dozen bar owners who have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the smoking ban argue that the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution by allowing smoking in bars located in the four towns within the county.

The suit against Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is pending in a federal court. Ballard signed the ordinance in April, expanding existing citywide restrictions against indoor public smoking to include bowling alleys, hotel rooms and most bars. Tobacco shops, hookah bars, existing not-for-profit private clubs and downtown’s off-track betting parlor also are exempt from the ban.

Wanda Goodpaster, who co-owns the Road Dog Saloon on Southeastern Avenue on the city’s southeast side, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She said the bar she’s operated for four years is losing customers to competitors in nearby Beech Grove.

On a recent Friday afternoon, she counted just two patrons at the bar. Before the ban took effect, she said, the tavern typically would have been nearly full at that time.

Goodpaster thinks the saloon will find a way to survive, but she doesn't expect business to fully return unless the ban were repealed.

“That’s the only chance we’ve got,” she said. “It’s so crazy. You should have a right to choose.”

Chuck Fitzwater, who owns the Silver Bullet Sports Bar on Main Street in Beech Grove, shares Goodpastor's sentiments even though he's benefitting from the law right now.

Fitzwater's customers still can light up in his bar, and he's seen a slight bump in business from smokers seeking a new drinking spot. Occasionally, he receives phone calls from those who are still confused about the boundaries of Indianapolis’ smoking ban.

Fitzwater, who has owned the bar with his wife for more than three years, sank his retirement funds from 32 years on the Lawrence Police Department into the Silver Bullet.

If Beech Grove would follow in the footsteps of Indianapolis and Lawrence, he said he’s certain he’d lose his investment. The 64-year-old kicked his own smoking habit in January with the help of electronic cigarettes, but acknowledged that Beech Grove is a blue-collar town with a heavy smoking population who wouldn't welcome a ban.

 

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