Thursday, June 5, 2008

AZ Federation of Taxpayers: Phoenix bureaucracy hurts small businesses with pointless regs

Dear Phoenix Taxpayer:

Your city tax dollars pay for an intrusive bureaucracy to enforce hundreds of pointless regulations approved by the Phoenix City Council. Those regulations hurt the small businesses and charities that are the heart of our city’s economy. (Then the city turns around and wastes our tax money on massive projects—such as light rail—that are supposed to revitalize downtown…)

Yesterday, the Phoenix edition of the Arizona Republic ran an op-ed by AFP Arizona telling the story of one Phoenix business that was almost destroyed by pointless city regulations. I have pasted the text of the op-ed below, and it is posted at the AFP Arizona blog site:

Bureaucracy could ruin downtown resurgence

By Tom Jenney

Phoenix Republic

June 4, 2008, Page 21

On April 30, the Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law group, won its case in defense of the San Tan Flats Steakhouse. The western-style bar and grill had been locked in two-year legal battle with Pinal County regulators, who tried to use a 1960s dance-hall ordinance to stop patrons from dancing on an outdoor patio. (Link:

The San Tan Flats case reminded many of the 1984 Kevin Bacon dance movie, Footloose, in which teens in a puritanical rural town fought for the right to dance against local prudes who thought dancing was immoral. The bad guys in the San Tan Flats case—the supervisors and bureaucrats of Pinal County—were not moralists, but rather, regulatory tyrants who were zealous in enforcing a pointless statute.

Unfortunately, Phoenix has its own example of Footloose-style regulatory tyranny. The victim in this instance was one of downtown’s great treasures, the MacAlpine’s Soda Fountain at 7th Street and Oak. Founded in 1928, MacAlpine’s has served Phoenix over the decades as a pharmacy, a soda fountain, a restaurant, and an antique shop. The decor is 1930s, with wood-paneled benches, hat racks, and dozens of period art pieces and advertisements. (Link:

In 2003, in an effort to save the business, owners Cary and Monica Heizenrader began offering swing dances on weekend nights. Local swing enthusiasts and their families could come to MacAlpine’s, have a meatloaf dinner, order unlimited egg cream sodas, and dance to the big band sounds of the 1930s and ‘40s. No smoking, no booze—just good old-fashioned family fun.

The MacAlpine’s swing dances brought people from all over the Valley and added a rare bit of life to the normally moribund downtown Phoenix night scene. My wife and I came in once on a Friday night and saw about fifty people: guys in zoot suits and Charlie Chaplin hats, and girls in vintage outfits. There was a three-year old girl in a poodle skirt, and 90-year old man who had been a world-class swing dancer.

For a half-hour, a young woman taught the group some Charleston moves, and for the rest of the evening, everybody danced what they knew (which for me was not much). One couple we talked to had come all the way from Tucson, just to dance.

Unfortunately, the Phoenix city government eventually got in the way. In 2004, a disgruntled former tenant dug through city statutes, and accused the restaurant of operating a dance hall without having a permit. The city bureaucracy agreed, and issued a cease-and-desist order, telling the Heizenraders that they would have to install a $75,000 sprinkler system just to qualify for a permit—and there was no guarantee that the city would issue a permit. The possible penalties for noncompliance included arrest, $2,500 fines per infraction, and even jail time.

MacAlpine’s did not need extra fireproofing equipment. The Heizenraders did not allow smoking, and they already operated a full-service kitchen. But the City would not listen to reason, and shut down the swing dances. When the Heizenraders said they might lose their business, a city official suggested that they open a dollar store.

Despite its nightmarish encounter with the Phoenix bureaucracy, MacAlpine’s has survived—and thrived—on the growing strength of its lunchtime business. Its sandwiches and atmosphere are popular with the business lunch crowd, and its adjacent antiques store is doing well.

Of course, we will never know how successful the dances would have been. Perhaps swing dancing was fated to become less popular. Maybe today’s business plan is better. But if MacAlpine’s wanted to try holding swing dances, they had the right to try. And the culture of Phoenix is poorer because of the city’s heavy-handed regulations.

As Phoenix politicians continue in their endless quest to revive downtown business and create a hip nightlife, the most important thing they can do is to keep the city bureaucracy out of the way.

--Tom Jenney lives in central Phoenix. He is the Arizona director for Americans for Prosperity (

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