San DIego State to get rid of Louie's Pub?

Use me, then lose me

— For the past ten years, Louie Holton has owned and operated Louie’s pub at Aztec Center at the southeastern edge of the SDSU campus. While serving beer and wine to students weekday afternoons and evenings until ten, he has come to know many of their lifestyle patterns.

Holton’s advice has a whiff of the old in loco parentis, Latin for “in place of parents,” a doctrine that universities have abandoned, sometimes under court orders, since the 1960s. The idea was that when kids leave home for college, universities take over some parenting roles. Dormitory curfews, especially for girls, and dinner dress codes, once common at private colleges, are examples of the policy that was intended to be for students’ own good.

Several weeks ago, Holton gave me an earful from behind his bar. “Before the last campus police chief retired, he said he’d love me to be open seven days a week until two in the morning because he knew I ran a tight ship and it would give a place for students to drink on campus so they wouldn’t have to drive to the beach. The worst time for police around here has been the eleven-to-three-o’clock hour, when students are going to and coming home from the beach.

“We don’t want the students to have to go off campus to drink,” Holton continues, “especially those that live on campus because then you’re forcing them to decide whether they’re going to drink and drive. You’re putting young people in a compromised situation that they don’t have to be in if they have a safe, controlled environment on campus.

“The way I view the pub on campus is that it’s a controlled environment for students to learn their limits. People turn 21 while they’re going to college, and I think it’s part of the university’s responsibility to give them a safe, regulated place to learn their limits while they’re still in school. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned early and as fast as possible so they don’t end up becoming problem drinkers. When you hide stuff, you tend to hide it from everybody, including yourself a lot of times,” observes Holton.

“They’re going to drink at this age. It’s a foregone conclusion. Give them a safe alternative to drinking and driving. We’ve seen in recent weeks that even the smartest SDSU students will drink and drive if push comes to shove.” (Holton is referring to the arrest on October 17 of the SDSU student body president James Poet for driving under the influence of alcohol and possession of marijuana.)

“It should be part of the university’s mission statement,” the pub owner concludes, “to both keep the students safe and offer them alternatives to driving back and forth from downtown and the beach. I know there’s a liability issue involved, but sometimes we have to think past the liability to the responsibility.”

Holton might talk as though he wants to be dean of students. Instead, he’s trying to save his pub. At the start of the current school year, an official of Aztec Shops, a nonprofit company that administers food services, dormitories, and the bookstore on campus, informed Holton that he’d have to close in May 2009. Aztec Center is scheduled to be razed, and over a two-year period the university will build a new student center called Modern Space on the same site. When Modern Space opens, Aztec Shops plans to put operation of a new pub and grill out to bid. Holton was first told he would not be allowed to bid (Aztec Shops has since changed its mind), and until the new building has been completed, there will be no university pub. Holton had hoped to remain in business at least while construction was under way, but he was told no.

University officials told Holton not to speak with students or the student newspaper, the Daily Aztec, about the pub’s closing. But what irks him the most, he tells me, “is that administrators used the pub, they used my [business name], Louie’s, to get the students to vote yes on a new student center. They used my business name in their voting pamphlet for the referendum.”

The referendum on fees for a new student center was held in March 2006. The ballot indicated that choosing “yes” would be a vote for, among other items, more seating in Louie’s Suds n’ Sun (the bar’s full name), especially on the outside patio. On September 30 of this year, in a story about the pub, the Daily Aztec quoted Chris Manigault, student body president in 2006, as follows: “Originally, there was going to be some form of Louie’s pub. There was not an intent to lose the pub in the original ballot.”

“When I mentioned that the students were not getting what they voted for,” says Holton, “the university told me the name Louie’s was used only so that students would understand what a pub is. Yeah, right. I thought our grade point average at San Diego State was going up. I believe that most people on this campus know what a pub is.”

Despite the promise of a bidding process for the next campus pub, there has already been talk of bringing in Chili’s to run the pub and grill, which will be on the lower level near the bowling alley in the new building. At first, there were rumors that Chili’s would serve hard alcohol in addition to beer and wine. Campus administrators later squelched the idea, saying hard alcohol will never be allowed on campus.

“Downstairs is the worst possible place for a pub,” says Holton, who thinks that by going there the university shows it wants to hide drinking on campus. Currently, the fenced patio outside Louie’s often has a raucous atmosphere, especially on Thursday afternoons, when many students are done with classes for the week. And it is one of the last sights that visiting parents see when student guides bring them to the edge of campus after escorting the families on campus tours.

The parents might well be concerned. There have been three drinking-related student deaths on or near campus in the past three years. And a well-publicized drug bust in several fraternities last spring caused the university a public relations nightmare. None of these problems originated in Louie’s.

Holton thinks the university wants to bring more profitable corporate businesses onto campus. He says that during a discussion of his bar’s closure, a university administrator pointed out that Holton’s income was down 8 percent from the previous year. “Not a single thing the university asked me to do has yet to put me out of business,” says Holton. “But the accumulation of things they’ve done to the business over the years has started to take a toll. They’ve shortened my daily hours, they’ve reduced the number of days I can open, I can’t open for basketball or football games. Aztec Shops themselves sell beer and wine at campus events like concerts. Ten years ago, that was sold in here. I used to be able to open Saturdays and Sundays, especially if there were sporting events on those days. Last basketball season they changed that in midstream. The policy on the pub, though I’m across campus from Cox Arena, seems to piggyback on the [California State University] chancellor’s ruling last year that there should be no more alcohol at athletic events.

“When I was told I couldn’t come back after next May, they told me I did not make enough money or have enough experience to operate the type of pub and grill they plan to put in the new center. They even said that if I went off campus and started a pub-and-grill business to show them I can be successful for two years that I would have a chance just like everybody else in the world to put in a bid for the next pub.”

Russ Brew, who together with his wife ran several coffeehouse/juice bars at SDSU starting in 1990, had a similar experience. Four years ago, Aztec Shops refused to renew his contract and brought in two Starbucks outlets instead. The move had been preceded by a demand that Brew return a higher percentage of his profits to Aztec Shops. One of his locations was closed, and several coffee carts were brought in to operate in close proximity to his remaining stores, “cannibalizing profits,” says Brew.

Brew tells me by phone that he enjoyed good relations with most Aztec Shops employees, including Jack Dement, the company’s general manager at the time. But one day, Dement sent him “an absolutely brutal letter.” It said Brew was not doing a good job and complained that his sales were dropping. The letter felt like a personal attack, says Brew, because he and his wife produced everything they sold at the store, oftentimes getting up to make sandwiches at three in the morning. He thinks Aztec Shops wanted to “go corporate.” He was able to work out a one-year extension, but Starbucks was on campus the minute the year was up.

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Aztec Center is going to be razed? Why? That building opened in 1969, and SDSU claimed it was the first such student union building of its kind ever built on a Cal State campus. One of the few graceful buildings on that dreary campus, it had become the signature building for the university. If Aztec Center is now inadequate--the probable reason for tearing it down--could it not get some expansion or annex?

I think Holton is exactly right. SDSU wants to turn the operation into a big revenue source, and going corporate is the way to do that. Take a look at Price Center at UCSD and see the commercialism crowd out comfort. But the current view of drinking is that it is vaguely shameful, and the public--including parents of potential students--must be shielded. (If only they knew!) So, hide it away, make it expensive so that the concessionaire can pay a big share of the take, and everyone is happy. Except maybe for the customers, the students, for whose benefit it all exists.

I think "Visduh" was right to suggest one consider UCSD: although the longstanding location of "The Pub" that existed in the center of campus for many years has reopened with a tiny venue constricted to a small portion of the otherwise unused building, the campus administration shut the Pub down hard, in order to make "room" in the new "University Center" for Round Table Pizza and a much more constricted, sanitized experience for students---but that generates far more money for the university.

It doesn't take an SDSU Business School grad to figure out that the current Aztec pub is being squeezed out with bureaucratese in order to pave the way for a large, chain-based corporate operator. That's the way it works and it's how "University Center Administrators" are trained to do things.

Louie, when you took over the place from Brian (back when it was still called Monty's) you knew the reason he left was the endless crap he had to endure to run his business. You've had nothing but trouble from these jerk-wads from the beginning.

Really, Louie, you should take your talents and experience somewhere you'll be appreciated and treated like a businessman who contributes to the community. As long as the child-minder mentality prevails at our universities you'll always be under their thumb, tolerated at best, but never welcome or appreciated.

Aztec Shops / SDSU pimps out to the highest bidder. That was what happened to the old on-campus Allegro coffee shop a few years back. Hence, the campus community suddenly had "the joy" of choosing between three Starbucks on and around SDSU. Most of the students attending SDSU are suburbanites and they have been surrounded by the splendors of corporate strip malls and their homogenized offerings ever since birth. Many students also have limited transportation offerings so they are sort of cornered by the corporate options. Squeezing Louie's into a bidding process or just pushing them out, plays right into the plans of greedy, homogenized, corporate vultures. Louie's probably does scare some parents especially after the "drug sting" of last spring. Note to students: there are so many non-corporate options in San Diego and some stores, restaurants, etc., offer better quality and prices. Venture out and you will discover! One would think that your college of choice would cut you a break when it came to prices but not the good ol'Aztec Shops.

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