The Austin Chronicle

Smoking Ban

Supporters breathe easy, opponents smolder

By Daniel Mottola, May 13, 2005, News

No one knew quite what to expect when the ballot results began filtering in Saturday night, but the most common predictions for the divisive smoking ban vote – that it would be close and that the people who actually came out to the polls, especially early voters, would be more inclined to support the ban – both held true in the end. The new, tougher ordinance, which bans smoking in bars, billiard parlors, and live music venues, narrowly prevailed with the 52% majority it maintained nearly all night.

There was a weird heaven-and-hell-like parallel between pro-ban Onward Austin's election night digs at the downtown Hilton and the Elysium nightclub a few blocks north, the headquarters for both anti-ban Keep Austin Free and Elysium owner John Wickham's campaign for City Council. Onward's fourth floor conference room overlooking the city was bountifully catered, upbeat, and decorated with puffy, ornate white tablecloths and cloud-like clusters of blue and white balloons. The gothic, dungeon-themed Elysium, on the other hand, remained dark and smoky all night, and seemed rife with sorrow and despair.

"This is a sad day for Austin's live music scene. It isn't going to be the same free and tolerant society that we all fell in love with," said Wickham at 9:45pm, when well over half the votes were in and people were beginning to call the race in favor of the ban. He said his city council campaign, which eventually finished with 6% of the vote, was primarily intended to "mobilize people and bring attention to the ban issue."

As vote totals continued to favor the ban, the mood remained celebratory at Onward Austin's party. Guests mingled, nibbling tasty finger foods to the jovial tunes of "the smoke-free septet," a local jazz group. Onward Austin frontman Rodney Ahart said Onward would use its database of the more than 40,000 names to "continue to educate those people and make them aware of the benefits of the ordinance and really encourage people to go out and support our live music and hospitality industry."

Back at Elysium, Paul Silver, Keep Austin Free's treasurer and owner of bar 219 West, proposed a toast "to superior legal council." Courtroom action against the ban is imminent, he said. "For these bars that are at risk of failure, time is of the essence. They don't have the kind of reserve cash that the big bars have to survive," he said. "If those nonsmokers that are waiting to come out to these clubs don't show up, it'll be shock and awe."

Less than 24 hours later, Austin Music Commission Vice Chair Natalie Zoe, a singer who publicly supported the ban, announced that the Commission passed a resolution requesting City Council earmark $600,000 for a fund for live music venues in danger of closing due to smoking ban-induced revenue loss. (The $600,000 was previously budgeted for the relocation of Liberty Lunch, which ultimately decided not to move.) Of course, the resolution must go before city council for approval.

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