In exchange, each business will receive a $5,000 subsidy to help account for lost revenue. A committee composed of university and community leaders announced the plan Tuesday and listed 34 businesses that it said supported this Saturday's "alcohol-free zone."
Every downtown establishment that sells alcohol will refrain from doing so Saturday, said Damon Sims, university vice president of student affairs and co-chairman of a committee known as the Partnership: Campus & Community United Against Dangerous Drinking. The majority of the funds to pay for the subsidies to businesses would come from campus parking fees collected during previous State Patty's Day weekends, he said.
State Patty's Day was created in 2007 to celebrate St. Patrick's Day when it fell on spring break that year. But the holiday no longer falls during the break, and school administrators, student leaders and community residents have grown weary of a weekend that has become synonymous with excessive drinking and property damage.
Besides that, the last thing Penn State needs as it seeks to redeem its reputation after the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal is more negative attention.
Other schools have similar unofficial holidays, but Sims said he thought no other university community had gone to the extent of getting establishments to go alcohol-free.
"Everyone in the partnership really wanted this to go away. ... This became one of the few things that we thought of that we hadn't tried," Sims said in a phone interview. "Perhaps we can find more headway than in the past."
The weekend in recent years has also sparked talk on social media, which authorities have said has contributed to a spike in out-of-town revelers.
"This is an outside-the-box solution that businesses, the borough, student leaders and the University have embraced," Tom Fountaine, borough manager and committee cochairman, said in a statement that included declarations of support from student and business leaders.
Police, along with community, school and student groups, have ramped up efforts in recent years to counter the excessive drinking that marks State Patty's Day. Fraternities and sororities banned parties for Friday and all social functions Saturday. Volunteer opportunities have also been promoted as alternative activities in a day of service.
Last year, authorities said arrests dropped by about 13 percent to roughly 300.
"I don't think it's a bad idea. If you ask me, State Patty's Day is pretty dumb," fourth-year senior Nick Stuchlak said about the no-alcohol zone. After meeting fellow senior Nick Mattise at the university's main gate downtown, Stuchlak said he doesn't do anything special for the day, which he equated to just an excuse to drink.
But Stuchlak and Mattise both questioned how the move would affect how non-Penn State visitors would act.
"I think we've learned better in the past year how to act, but people from out of town—this isn't their town," said Stuchlak, of Scranton. "They actually have no stock in acting correctly."
Said Mattise, also of Scranton: "It's gotten out of hand with the out-of-town people."
The change is targeted especially at discouraging out-of-town guests from visiting for the purpose of excessive drinking, Sims said. "If it makes it a less inviting place, then it would achieve" the goal.
State Patty's Day this year falls on the weekend after the annual student-organized Dance Marathon, an event that generates positive publicity for the university. Students raised a record $12.3 million this year for pediatric cancer research and care.
Jennifer Zangrilli, director of operations at Dante's Restaurants Inc. and president of the Tavern Owner's Association, said the association was "excited and proud" to support the alcohol-free zone. "Our collective desire is to see our community and downtown not only grow but thrive," she said.
Food and non-alcoholic drinks will still be offered by establishments to appeal to "responsible visitors." Penn State's two campus hotels also planned to cut off alcohol sales Saturday.
Freshman Jeremy Smith, of Lansdale, remained a little skeptical. He said he doesn't plan on participating, but like Stuchlak noted that alcohol could still be purchased away from downtown.
"I don't know if it will have as big an impact as they think," Smith said. "There are so many places you can get things ... They would have to really, really go big scale to damper everything."
It was unclear how the initiative would affect establishments that weren't downtown. In previous years, state liquor stores closed early for the day.
Making downtown alcohol-free means the stepped-up police presence can focus on cracking down on house parties or otherwise unlicensed establishments, Sims said.