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Tequila Sunrise

Crowds spilling off the sidewalks forced police to close downtown streets during Tequila Sunrise in 2015 and 2016. Arrests dropped last year to five from 41 the previous year.

Homecoming is a special weekend for Northern Arizona University. The traditions and friends of yesteryear draw alums back to Flagstaff, where the university does its best to accommodate both the 50-year-old memories of the Class of 1967 and those of the go-go pre-recession Class of 2007.

The former left the confines of North Campus for the turbulent Sixties and the Vietnam War.

The latter had barely a year after graduation to get their feet wet in the world before the Great Recession hit.

Still, those grads do have some things in common, including a parade and a football game (although the Class of ’67 sat outside in Lumberjack Stadium). But Flagstaff’s population 50 years ago hadn’t reached 25,000, Mountain Campus enrollment was about 6,000, and South Campus had yet to be developed.

Today, Flagstaff stands at more than 70,000 residents, with 22,000 students on the Mountain Campus – 10,000 of them in dorms. Mobility around campus has become such an issue that students named the head of the campus shuttle bus system, Judy Manor, as this year’s Homecoming Dedicatee.

Homecoming everywhere is also a time of parties and carousing, and NAU is no different. The tradition of early-morning pub crawling, called Tequila Sunrise, isn’t quite as old as the Class of 1967, but almost. It has gone through phases of drunken rowdiness that escalated in recent years as the student population grew along with the number of downtown bars.

Things have gotten so out of hand that the university has pulled its Homecoming parade out of downtown to avoid contact between alumni families and the drunken crowds. Two years ago, there were 41 arrests and 16 admissions to the FMC emergency room for alcohol-related complaints. Liquor control officers recorded an average blood alcohol content 40 percent higher than the legal limit among those they arrested while hundreds more got a free pass for lack of manpower. Numerous businesses lost customers when the streets were closed as a public safety measure for drunken jaywalkers.

Last year, there were fewer bars participating, and the remaining ones did a better job of policing the drinkers under the watchful eyes of more liquor inspectors and police. Businesses put out portable toilets and more trash cans, and arrests fell to five downtown (there were other arrests at outlying parties.) But several streets still wound up being closed to protect drinkers who spilled over the sidewalks and curbs, prompting many non-bars to complain that their business day was essentially ruined.

This year, the police have again met with bar owners, warning of citations for serving underaged and intoxicated customers. Bartenders have received a refresher course on identifying sexual harassment during Tequila and how they can intervene. And the campus is full of reminders that there is a full slate of activities that don’t involve imbibing alcohol – and certainly not to the point of stupefaction.

Tequila Sunrise also comes against a backdrop of 600 liquor law violations on the Mountain Campus and 200 nuisance party citations in the city each year, many of them involving students. Many more underage students are drinking than are caught, and the alcohol-fueled party culture just beyond the campus boundary is blamed in part for the 2015 fight on Franklin Street and fatal shooting.

Flagstaff has always had its bars and hard drinkers, including the college crowd. The difference is that, with 22,000 students now enrolled in Flagstaff, even a 10 percent minority of students losing control to alcohol on a regular basis each weekend can ripple widely and deeply through a relatively small city and its neighborhoods.

As we have said in the past, if there’s a reason to continue the Tequila Sunrise tradition in its current form, we can’t think of one. It no longer plays any role in NAU Homecoming, it’s a health and safety hazard for the participants, and it’s a money-loser for most of Flagstaff’s downtown businesses. It’s also an embarrassment to a city that in the past has stood up to such violations of the public square. Flagstaff and NAU already have big problems with alcohol. There’s no reason to celebrate it and abuse it on a weekend when there are many other ways to enjoy Homecoming.

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