It’s all about the cups.
Cups are the key to the keg for any student looking to drink cheap and easy in the East Campus neighborhood, where scores of college students on a typical weekend flock to any of several homes where the beer is flowing.
Since the MU Greek community went dry in 2000, many students have looked to East Campus as a place near downtown where they can socialize and drink for less money or after the bars close. But the people hosting the parties often are doing so for a different reason — money.
The bigger the party, the more money the hosts can make. Some partiers reported their hosts had purchased all sorts of merchandise with party proceeds including foosball tables, DVD players, big-screen TVs and computers.
While guests usually must be acquainted with the people throwing the parties, they almost always are greeted at the door by a host with an open palm and a plastic sleeve of red Dixie cups, demanding $5 per person for a cup and the brew.
Most of the gatherings remain intimate to avoid attention from police. Students unfamiliar with the host are often sent packing. Thirty guests is about average, and the “friends of friends” rule often applies.
But keg economics work well even in relatively small gatherings. A party of 30 would bring in $150 if everyone paid, easily covering the cost of a couple quarter-barrels. At a two-keg affair, 30 guests could drink roughly nine beers apiece for the price of two in a downtown bar. And at one party on a recent weekend, guests could toss back two Jell-O shots for only $1.
The makeshift bars are an arrangement that many find hard to resist and that the party-throwers find profitable. Police and liquor control agents, however, find them problematic. If people are caught selling beer or liquor, they could face charges of running a business without a license or serving to minors.
“If we can prove that it’s happening, it’s basically against the law,” Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said of charging guests money to drink. “Typically it’s pretty difficult to prove, in that you have to see money changing hands.”
Steve Shimmens, chief of enforcement for the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, agreed. He said small, quiet parties present an extra challenge.
“If students are selling alcohol inside their home and not making noise, that’s problematic for us to deal with,” he added. “The issue we can deal with is a keg openly on the front porch and students charging five bucks.”
Special Agent Bill Alton, who covers Boone County for the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, said he’s aware of the practice here and has seen the same problem in other parts of the state. Budget cuts, however, have made it more difficult to catch people breaking the law.
“It’s difficult because it’s manpower-intensive,” Alton said. “You have to create the elements of a sale. Typically how we do it is to send people in. We pay for the beer ourselves and create the sale case.”
Boehm said police work hard early in the year to let new students know the law. “The beginning of the year we put out a specific effort of education and enforcement,” he said. “We’ve seen some increase in calls over the past couple of years, which we attribute to dry campus.”
Kim Dude, director of the Wellness Resource Center for MU, said the university tries to educate students about the legal implications of getting caught selling liquor.
“It’s a felony and extremely serious,” Dude said. “It could be costly
to them now and in the future when they are applying for jobs and graduate programs. It is taken very seriously by liquor control and the police.”
Party hosts also face potential fines when parties get out of control, and the police department has tried to crack down in the East Campus neighborhood. One round of extra enforcement came on Sept. 20 in response to citizen complaints. Police, along with state liquor agents, cracked down on parties in East Campus and surrounding areas. They arrested 24 minors for possessing alcohol.
Police regularly break up parties with 100 people or more, several students said. The minimum fine for noise violations is $75; the maximum is $1,000. Fines rise with each violation, and police can send letters to landlords asking for help with persistent violators.
John Clark, president of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, is part of a group of Columbia residents pushing for a nuisance ordinance. The proposed ordinance would hold property owners responsible for nuisance complaints filed against their renters. Alcohol violations and excessive noise are included in the 14 nuisance categories. If landlords fail to take action, they could have their property shut down for one year.
Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash said he often gets calls regarding noise and drinking.
“I heard quite a bit about it at the beginning of the school year. It’s continuing to be a problem,” he said. “It’s not the noise so much as the big parties. I’ve asked the police and neighbors to brainstorm with me, but I don’t have the answer. I view my role as the guy to get the ball rolling.”
Clyde Wilson, former Columbia mayor and a longtime resident of East Campus, said the city and landlords need help controlling the problem.
“The university has neglected its duty. The problem was swept under the rug,” Wilson said. “The people who should be managing the behavior is the university.”
Dude said the people who sell and serve alcohol to students — including bars and liquor stores — are also part of the problem.
“We have a campus-community coalition trying to work with this,” Dude said, adding that, “the whole community shares in the responsibility for loud parties. . . . The university needs to work with the community to hold students, landlords and sellers of alcohol accountable.”
Not all East Campus residents feel the problem is out of control. Tom O’Sullivan, a resident of Rosemary Street and a detective with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, has enjoyed living in the neighborhood for over a decade.
“The cops do a good job. They set the tone,” O’Sullivan said. “There’s only one or two houses on each street that seem to be the problem. The problem is when there are 300 people and the thrower doesn’t know 250 of them.”