The Arlington Hotel Pub is the historic watering hole where loggers, millworkers, longshoremen, fishermen, businessmen and bikers rub elbows over cloth-covered tables, drinking golden frothy mugs of beer.
But the venerable Johnston Road bar, which has been around since 1893, will soon be no more.
Arlington owner Dan McCormack has applied for a dormant status for the hotel’s liquor license, putting it in a type of stasis.
The bar’s beer taps will be shut off, lights will go out and doors will be closed for the final time at 7 p.m. on May 31.
The closure will affect the pub only.
The restaurant, hotel and the beer and wine store will remain in operation.
Sitting in the hotel’s quiet second-story office, the bespectacled silver haired McCormack, 68, reflected on his decision.
“It was a sad day for the old Arli Pub when I decided to close it,” he said.
“I’ve been here for 30 years and this is the most hard-felt downturn I’ve experienced.”
The province’s new drinking and driving laws introduced last November have affected local drinking establishments to varying degrees, but have hit the Arli hard.
Despite those effects the laws are absolutely necessary, police say.
Back at the Arlington, McCormack stresses that the closure isn’t necessarily permanent.
Instead, it’s acting like a default setting while the beleaguered owner tries to manoeuvre.
“I’m studying this to get a better feel for it and things could change yet,” he said.
“I could sell it, lease it, tear it down and develop it but I doubt right now that I’ll ever re-open it.”
The lanky McCormack was working with Richmond’s Canadian Cement Lafarge in 1980 when he decided to invest his money in a hotel/bar.
After touring other towns he settled in Port Alberni in 1980 when he bought the Arlington Hotel.
He intended to stay for three years, fix the hotel up then sell it, but slowly changed his mind.
“The town and the people grew on me and I stayed ever since,” McCormack said.
Business was up and down over the years as he rode out recessions, strikes and downturns. Through it all, the Arli managed to survive.
But a flurry of regulatory moves in recent years put the bar on the ropes before putting it down for the count.
It started with B.C.’s smoking bylaw, which forced McCormack to invested $200,000 to conform with the new rules, he said.
“Our revenue dropped by 40 per cent after that,” he said.
Next, the HST came into effect and impacted customers, then the bar’s door attendants had to be professionally certified, and the bar had to pay for that too.
But the kill shot was the province’s new drinking and driving law legislated last November, McCormack said.
Under the new laws, drivers caught with a blood alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08 per cent receive an automatic three-day driving suspension and a $200 fine.
Anyone who refuses a breathalyzer test or blows over 0.08 is subject to a 90-day driving ban and a $500 fine.
The impact of these new laws curtailed the number of drinking drivers, but it had a lateral effect as well.
“I don’t want drinking drivers charging around the road, but responsible drinkers were too scared to come out anymore,” McCormack said.
The party who leased the bar gave up their obligation in December and McCormack tried to run the operation.
But he couldn’t afford to absorb the bar’s $350-a-day losses anymore and made the decision to close.
“For the most part it was those rules and regulations that just hammered the hell out of us.”
The laws cut a swath industry wide, according to a survey by the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association survey released this month.
More than 88 per cent of bar operators reported a drop in liquor sales since November, and licensees also reported an average 21 per cent loss in liquor sales between Oct. 2010 and Jan. 2011 compared to the same period a year earlier.
Not everyone is feeling the pinch over the new laws, though. Across town at the Port Pub, staff there report a different experience with the new regulations.
The smoking laws initially hit the Argyle Street bar hard but things have picked up since.
“There were slower days and business wasn’t so good at first,” manager Barb Provencal said.
“But now we’re up by 25 per cent over this time last year so I guess we’re one of the lucky ones.”
Several factors are responsible for the bar’s steady business.
“We’ve got a really good staff and that brings in steady customers, but our restaurant has really carried us,” Provencal said.
Other factors may have contributed to drop in bars’ liquor sales, but the new drinking and driving laws have contributed to the decrease in another statistic as well.
“There has been a 50 per cent drop in the number of drinking and driving fatalities,” RCMP Inspector Gord Wellar said.
“There were far too many fatalities and we had to separate the booze from the machines.”
People can still go to the bar and have a drink then go home.
“But you can’t go the bar and get intoxicated, then try and drive.”
A liquor inspector before he became a police officer, Wellar noted that bars were popular for up to two years.
“But if they didn’t change it up then business waned.”
The cost of alcohol in a bar, an oversaturation of bars in town, and the rise in popularity of drinking at home are likely more to blame for a bar’s drop in business.
”I have a hard time believing that the drinking and driving laws are the singular reason why bars are going out of business,” Wellar said.
Back in his upstairs office at the Arlington, the gentlemanly McCormack peers out his window at Johnston Road while pondering what’s next.
He’s not sure if he wants to stay in the liquor business, but life goes on, he said.
“I’ve managed to weather every downturn so far but I don’t want to weather this one,” he said.
“I feel like I failed, but it wasn’t because of anything I did.”