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Pa. university targets off-campus sports bar

Pizzeria owner Thomas Hashem knew his target audience when he opened a $1.5 million sports bar across the street from the University of Scranton.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pizzeria owner Thomas Hashem knew his target audience when he opened a $1.5 million sports bar across the street from the University of Scranton.

With its seating for 100, high-end sound system, big-screen plasma TVs and Xbox game systems, Goodfellas — which opened before summer break to big crowds — is catnip to college kids.

And that worries officials at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit university with more than 4,000 undergraduates.

The school took the unusual step of suing to prevent Goodfellas from getting a liquor license, managing to win some concessions. Now, it is back in court trying to block a proposed expansion that would make the bar even more enticing for students.

Hashem, 38, said he resents college officials' "knee-jerk response."

"Scranton gives everything to this university," said Hashem, a lifelong city resident who attended the university for two years before dropping out to pursue business opportunities. "The way this university pays this city back is by bullying and harassing its residents, its neighbors and its business people. And it needs to stop."

Efforts against alcohol abuse
As universities try to curb alcohol abuse among students, experts say they aren't surprised one would take a bar owner to court.

Many college towns have tried to limit the availability of alcohol off-campus, mainly through restrictive zoning and bans on drink specials and advertising to students. Research has shown that a high concentration of bars and liquor stores near campuses lead to increases in binge and underage drinking.

Scranton, a city of about 75,000 students two hours north of Philadelphia, has dealt with alcohol-related tragedy before: A university student drinking heavily on his 20th birthday fell down a flight of steps and died in 2002. Eleven students pleaded guilty to charges of supplying and selling beer to minors and selling beer without a license.

When the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board awarded Hashem a liquor license for Goodfellas in 2005, the university went to court to get the decision overturned, saying there were already several bars near students.

The university withdrew its suit after Hashem made several concessions, including agreeing to halt takeout sales at midnight at the "Beer Cave," a store attached to Goodfellas, and to close the bar at 1 a.m. Sundays through Wednesdays.

Looking to expand
Goodfellas opened in early May, two weeks before the end of the semester, and served hundreds of patrons a night without incident.

Now the sports bar is seeking a 2,500-square-foot expansion into its basement — a space for pool tables and other games, a DJ booth, live music and additional taps — and the school is objecting again.

In court papers filed earlier this month, the university said a basement bar "will promote underage drinking among (the) student population and lead to increased criminal activity in the neighborhood." It also raised concerns about the safety of the space.

Hashem said the school is being hypocritical because it serves alcohol at on-campus events.

Goodfellas has an elaborate security system to keep out underage drinkers, trains employees in responsible alcohol service, and offers free food to patrons who appear to have overindulged, said Hashem, who figures his battle with the university will end up costing him around $650,000.

"Scranton needs a nice place like this," he said.

The city has largely taken Hashem's side over the years.

City leaders and neighborhood residents alike spoke in support of Goodfellas when it applied for a liquor license. In May, more than 100 people cheered when the zoning board granted Hashem's request to expand into the basement.

"I'm not sure why they're so overly concerned about it," said Phil Grieco, a 2000 graduate who often returns to Scranton. "Students are still going to find a way to party, to drink, to have fun."

But student body president Joe Quinn, 20, an incoming junior, said he shares the university's concern. "The idea to have a sports bar is a cool thing," he said, but added, "it's a little much to be in such close proximity to the university."

Gerry Zaboski, a university vice president, said the school is being responsible.

"Everyone puts pressure on the colleges to do something about student drinking," he said. "Well, we are."