Drunken students lose ride home due to economy

Watchdawgs, the student organization responsible for providing nearly 60,000 rides to intoxicated and abandoned downtown patrons, has temporarily halted service due to financial concerns. 


Shaken by a tumbling economy, the group has found itself homeless as the benevolence of local apartment complexes has finally ceased.


One of many student organizations finding constraints from university budget cuts, Watchdawgs has faced unique challenges from university representation. 


Although a registered student organization, the group has received merely name recognition from the university, with no financial support provided since its creation. 


At odds with the university’s official stance on under-aged alcohol consumption, Watchdawgs has lost support of President Adams and the university coffers.  With a belief in safety-first, the group transports any intoxicated or abandoned passenger Thursday through Saturday, regardless of their age or identification.  Their slogan remains a “free, safe, non-judgmental ride home.” 


While never established in a permanent facility, Watchdawg volunteers have staked headquarters at numerous Athens locations, using their non-profit status as tax exemptions for many providers.  From the downtown police department to their previous Lakeside apartment, the organization has had a base to house their records and run their dispatch service for the weekend drivers.


Now the group must turn to restricted funding to pay for space in the community, something which current Watchdawg exec J.D. Brandon is afraid may not happen. 


“Anheuser-Busch was our major donor, and we recently lost them due to the downturn in the economy,” Brandon said.  “We are really limited in funds right now.”           


Now financed predominantly through donations from parents and families, corporate sponsors often only provide item specific donations, like ten pizzas a night from Papa Johns for volunteer staff and drivers. 


With options running thin, Brandon has turned to Athens-Clarke County Mayor Heidi Davison for support in providing a stable, yet short-term location.  With the appropriate support, Watchdawgs plans to reopen in the fall to re-service the downtown community.  According to Brandon, Mayor Davison has been responsive to the group, and offered numerous contacts for additional support. 


Despite the university’s critical stance, it still feels the group’s registered status is important. 


Ed Mirecki, director of student activities and organizations at Campus Life, says the university is obligated to uphold the students’ privileges. 


“We do try to honor and protect students’ first amendment rights,” Mirecki said.  “On campus there is a beer drinkers group and a group advocating the legalization of marijuana.  We are not in the business of censuring the content and topics of anything associated to student organizations.  The guidelines would be that something is a risk to other students, and that line is drawn pretty far out there.” 


But according to Mirecki, to receive funding the group’s objectives should not contradict a policy Adams has adamantly upheld.  Mirecki states that a fine line is drawn between enforcing underage drinking policies and supporting easy transportation to and from downtown on the weekends.


Mirecki also pondered the consequences of Watchdawgs not returning.  Would the University be responsible for providing adequate transportation, with possible revamps of the twenty-four hour bus schedule?  While Mirecki found it a possibility, he felt the university lacked an official response to the situation.


“I think Dr. Adams has not been supportive of Watchdawgs because he wanted them to take a firm stance on drinking,” Mirecki said.  “He wanted them to be very clear that people under 21 shouldn’t be drinking, and Watchdawgs wouldn’t do that.” 


When asked whether the university would contact the community to aid in Watchdawgs’ relocation, Mirecki answered no, though not for any specific reason. 


Suggestions by the Red and Black that the University should allocate space on campus, especially in the newly constructed Tate II, are difficult due to Watchdawg’s late operating hours, Mirecki said.


“I think at four o’clock in the morning they’re going to want their own external entrance, and there just are not the facilities to do that, especially in Tate II,” Mirecki said. 


“I don’t think our staff (Campus Life) has reached out to the group in any way to ask if we can be of assistance, to whatever degree we might be able to put them in the right direction or  give them potential leads,” Mirecki said.  “We like to think we would be in a position to support student organizations in that way.”   


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