Sparks and Sputters
The Cellar on University Drive is in many ways the quintessential Fort Worth bar, and on this night the dank underground tavern provides a refuge for a broad sampling of city folk.
Older regulars sit at the bar, occasionally sharing knowing nods with other customers, while dolled-up TCU girls greet each other shrilly, as if they haven’t seen each other for years. The bartenders are pleasant if busy, and the guy at the door seems to know everyone by name. But the Cellar typifies the bar scene in one other important way: Almost everyone is smoking. The resultant haze hangs there as though the place was built atop a chimney — and some lawmakers want that changed. Smoking has once again found its way to the political foreground here in Fort Worth and in Austin. Smokers across the state have mustered the energy to wage another fight against another smoking ban. Policymakers in Austin took a cue from countless Texas cities that have enacted their own limitations on smoking, and filed a bill that would have placed restrictions on the whole state. But when that legislation died this week, many local bar and restaurant owners found themselves scratching their heads, wondering what was next.
Last May, the Fort Worth city council appointed an ad hoc committee to explore the possibility of snuffing out smoking here in the Fort. In October, the committee recommended that all enclosed public places, with few exceptions, be 100 percent smoke-free and also proposed a ban on smoking near windows and doorways. However, the local ordinance stalled after State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston (a Democrat) and Rep. Myra Crownover of Denton (Republican) filed identical bills to ban most indoor smoking statewide. Fort Worth leaders went into wait-and-see mode, hoping that state law would make it unnecessary for them to act. But when the smoke cleared in the chambers of power in Austin, House Bill 9 had flamed out.
The original bills would have created a uniform ban, applicable to almost every Texas city, on smoking in almost all public places and a few outdoor venues. Cities could have passed ordinances strengthening those provisions, but not weakening them. After much rumbling on the floor of the Texas House, a bill emerged that was so contorted it might have overridden existing ordinances in many counties and cities — and was so weak that many cities could have voted themselves out of its prohibitions by referendum. What’s more, one notable amendment, by Republican legislator Burt Solomons of Carrollton, would have allowed property owners to exempt their premises from the ban. The bill also included an exemption for bars, but not restaurants — much to the chagrin of Fort Worth State Rep. Charlie Geren, who also owns the Railhead Smokehouse barbecue restaurant. Despite attempts by both Crownover and Ellis to strip the amendments from the bill, the watered-down version never made it out of the House-senate conference committee. Perry Tong, owner of Pop’s Safari Cigars, Fine Wine and Bistro, on the edge of the Cultural District, attended House committee hearings on the bill and said that most people at the hearing opposed the ban in its original form. He noted that those who favored it “had some very impressive witnesses, people that had some pretty sad stories.” While he admits that the accounts of cancer and death as a possible result of smoking were powerful, he maintains that the bill was a threat to personal freedoms. “The issue was the deprivation of property rights, installing Kremlin-style law in the United States,” he said. “It took business people’s lives away from them.
It would almost make selling cigarettes like bootlegging.” Crownover’s chief of staff, Grant Ruckel, said the smoking ban as originally proposed was designed to protect non-smokers. “Only 18 to 20 percent of the population smokes, and they have the right to do so. House Bill 9 was not about restricting people’s right to smoke,” he said. “It was about protecting the 80 percent of people who don’t smoke from the dangers of second-hand smoke.” Fort Worth is back where it started, with local restaurant and bar owners alternatively hopeful, fearful, and confused, and the ad hoc committee’s recommendations on the table. Fort Worth City Council member Kathleen Hicks believes that a decision on a local smoking ordinance could come as early as this summer. “What I’m hearing is that they [the ad hoc committee] are coming back to us in June to give some different options,” she said. And while she maintains that the last proposal was too strict, “there is a consensus around the table that we do need a stronger smoking ordinance.” Hicks said that the risks of smoking necessitate an ordinance. “Obviously we want to promote businesses and private development, but I truly believe that this is a health issue,” she said. “We see so much evidence that more people than ever who don’t even smoke are getting lung cancer.
I think that there is a role that we need to play in municipal government when it comes to this issue. I fall on the side of health.” Opponents of the Fort Worth ban say city leaders should look next door for a cautionary tale on what a strict smoking ordinance can do. Arlington has banned smoking in restaurants and in bars connected to restaurants. Bars can allow smoking if no more than 25 percent of sales are for food and no one under 18 years old is admitted into the place. Several restaurants have closed since that city’s ordinance took effect in January, and other owners are saying that their businesses have taken a huge hit. Brett Russell, former co-owner of Saltimbocca’s Italian Restaurant, said that after the ban went into effect, his bar business dropped significantly. He decided to close the restaurant in April. “The biggest way to see the impact in this business is to look at your growth rate compared to the previous year,” he said. “In December of 2006 we were 16 percent up compared to 2005.
When the smoking ban took effect in January 2007, the following month we were 9 percent down [from the previous year].” Russell said that he has lost $500,000 and that more than 40 people lost their jobs because of the restaurant’s closing. Russ Bloxom, a non-smoker who was a regular at Saltimbocca’s, said that he has already seen cities without smoking bans benefit from Arlington’s policy. “I have a bunch of friends that would meet on Friday evenings at Saltimbocca’s. They came from Mansfield, Arlington, Kennedale, and Fort Worth,” he said. “It was a ritual, and now we can’t find another convenient place. Most of the people who like to smoke have gravitated to Mansfield.” Pete Moore, owner of Bobby V’s restaurant near I-20 and Bowen Road, said that his business is also feeling the effects of the ban. “We’ve been here 20 years, and we depend on the revenue from drinking, which goes hand-in-hand with smoking. We’re down probably 25 percent overall this year,” he said, and he’s had to lay off 15 people. Moore and Russell agreed that a statewide ban could have helped both their businesses. “I can’t compete with nightclubs and bars. Places like mine that allow families to come in and that serve food should be on a level playing field with them,” said Moore.
In Fort Worth, “level the playing field” was also a familiar battle cry for those in the restaurant sector during the early days of the ad hoc committee’s work. The panel wrote its proposal to ban indoor smoking at both restaurants and bars, which led many bar owners to suggest that the ordinance favored restaurants. In the wake of the committee’s proposal, a handful of bar owners and concerned business people created the Bar and Tavern Coalition, to stand up for the rights of bars. Their position put them in square opposition to some members of Fort Worth’s restaurant association, which had two representatives on the committee. One of the founding members of the Bar and Tavern Coalition, Jeff McKinney, general manager and vice president of Fort Worth City Vending, was also on the committee. Nonetheless, he’s one of the most vocal critics of the proposed ordinance. “What playing field do you want to level?” he asked. “What they’re saying is that they’re going to lose liquor sales because people aren’t going to sit at their bars and smoke a cigarette anymore. But bars and restaurants are two different things.” McKinney is anxious to see what, if anything, rises out of the ashes of the state legislation. “I’m just sitting back and waiting to see what happens at both the city and state level,” he said. “I’d hate to see the city council recommend something that’s going to hurt business owners. I’d like to see them get more business in the city.”