Could there really be a day when there is not a single bar on State Street? That’s what an article published last week in Isthmus suggested:

"This is one possible outcome if a set of recommendations to revise Madison's Alcohol License Density Ordinance, released by city staff in June, are approved by the Common Council," the story said.

"The proposals include an ordinance that would create a State Street Overlay District. Within this district ... no taverns, nightclubs or cocktail lounges could replace existing businesses at their respective locations. In effect, State Street could become tavern-free by attrition as owners sell or close their businesses."

Whether the effect of the proposal would be that dramatic, however, is subject to considerable debate.

“I don’t expect we’ll see the consequences outlined in the Isthmus article,” says Mayor Paul Soglin.

The way he and Mark Woulf, the city alcohol policy coordinator, frame it, the proposed restrictions on alcohol licenses are not aimed at eliminating bars downtown — they’re simply aimed at changing the nature of downtown bars.

Woulf says his hope is that new rules could force those seeking liquor licenses to come up with bar concepts that include entertainment, such as live music or stand-up comedy. Currently, he refers to most downtown bars as “vertical drinking” establishments, meaning that boozing while standing up is the venues' chief attraction.

This narrative may strike you as familiar.

Indeed, in 2011 the city tried to encourage more entertainment-oriented bars when the City Council amended the Alcohol License Density Ordinance, a 2007 law that barred the city from offering new bar licenses (taverns are licensees that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales) throughout most of the campus and Capitol areas downtown. The 2011 amendment created a new “entertainment” license for businesses that would provide regular entertainment and make 70 percent or less of their revenue from alcohol sales.

Since then, however, nobody has applied for the entertainment license. Woulf believes the requirements the license imposed on businesses were simply too burdensome.

“The 70 percent requirement and a provision that you must be providing entertainment each and every day was too much of a risk for a businessperson,” he says. “You have to make your money off alcohol, that’s the reality.”

But the new recommendations nevertheless propose strict requirements. “Live performance” venues would have to guarantee two nights of entertainment a week and have a designated stage area. Most space in a “billiards hall” must be dedicated to billiards; comedy clubs must have performances every day; night clubs must provide live DJ performances for the majority of their hours of operation.

In addition, bars that serve only beer or wine would be allowed to open. Those bars would have to have a kitchen open at all hours.

“I worry that we're also becoming too technical in our recommendations, trying to fit every business into a category,” says Ald. Scott Resnick, who represents much of the State Street area that would be affected by the proposal. “It doesn't leave much room for creativity.”

Furthermore, Resnick believes it is unrealistic to expect some downtown spaces that are currently taverns to sustain an entertainment concept, such as regular live performances or arcades.

“I can’t imagine (some of) those bars providing true entertainment,” he says. “This version would be a death warrant for 16 bars.”

As for beer and wine bars, Resnick believes they may not fit in on State Street as well as they might in swankier areas of the city, such as  Monroe Street. Hard liquor, it seems, is a vital component of being a successful downtown bar.

Liquor, however, is apparently what bothers Soglin the most — or at least the space dedicated to selling liquor.

“I don’t know that there’s too many (bars) but I certainly wouldn’t want to see any expansion of bar space or liquor space, particularly on the ground floor levels,” he says, echoing concerns expressed by a group of retailers recently. “If that happens it will break up the retail, it will break up the dry goods and State will lose that ambiance it has in terms of people wandering the street during the day doing their shopping.”

Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, who is often cited as a potential challenger to Soglin in 2015, says she is also skeptical of the proposal. Although she has long advocated for a more diverse entertainment scene downtown, she does not believe that creating zoning restrictions that dictate business concepts is the appropriate action.

“I think it really sets a whole new bar in terms of saying, ‘OK, we’re really going to use zoning to limit'" what goes on inside a building, she says.

Woulf says he and other city staff members who put together the recommendations are not committed to some of the specifics. He says he is open to addressing the concerns of current tavern owners, who worry that they will not be able to sell their businesses if new owners cannot operate them as bars.

“I don’t think we’re married necessarily to that concept … we’re open to grandfathering" current owners, he says.

Bidar-Sielaff and Resnick also emphasized that the recommendations were just a starting point for a discussion on alcohol policy.

“I imagine a compromise will be reached,” says Resnick.

- Gary Neuenschwander

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.

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(8) comments


Hi Jack,

Bennet here. Thanks for adding a follow up to the Isthmus piece. It helped clarify a detail that was unclear about the claim I made about taverns disappearing.

I never meant to suggest that all bars would disappear. Notice the wording: "Within this district ... no taverns, nightclubs or cocktail lounges could replace existing businesses at their respective locations. In effect, State Street could become tavern-free by attrition as owners sell or close their businesses."

My point was all taverns (not bars) could be eliminated. As we pointed out, wine and beer bars would be allowed. Wine and beer bars use Class B beer and Class C wine licenses.

Taverns, as they currently stand, use Class B combination licenses that allow them to sell liquor, in addition to wine and beer. The new policy would eliminate any possibility for Class B combination licenses in the future. Like you said, Mayor Soglin doesn't like liquor on State Street.

Because the taverns in the proposed district use these licenses and these licenses would no longer be grandfather-able, owners would not be able to resell their taverns or change their business' ownership. As each business closes with owner retirement or bankruptcy, the number of taverns in the proposed State Street Overlay District permanently decreases by 1.


Sorry, another clarification.... I should have said above: Taverns, as they currently are categorized, are establishments that get more than 50 percent of their income from alcohol sales, Additionally, nearly (if not) all taverns use combination Class B liquor licenses on State Street. A ban on the grandfathering of these licenses is a de facto end to the existing taverns in the proposed overlay district. I suppose one could attempt to continue operating their business as a beer only bar, but as Mary Carbine noted in the piece, it doesn't make sense.


In terms of creativity, howzabout live sex shows, a separate room for smoking dope, or dwarf tossing? I bet there'd be a niche for those.


No problem if the bars leave there will just be more coffee shops, we haven't many of those.

Jack Craver
Jack Craver

A couple comments in response, folks.

NotVanilla –– Although there may be a certain element of paternalism in city alcohol policy (i.e. trying to prevent young people from binge drinking), much of the policy is aimed at cutting down on the cost of alcohol to taxpayers that comes in the form of police calls. And while there are certainly cultural or intellectual arguments made to reduce the number of bars, some policymakers are also using a practical argument: If downtown is dedicated to bars then the city will only attract a certain consumer base (the young) and will suffer economically as a result.

MWWI –– The evidence certainly seems to suggest you are right. However, some in city government argue the absence of entertainment is a symptom of misguided regulations, rather than a lack of potential customers.


This is Madison, after all. It is run by the Intellectual Elite who always know what is best for the mobocracy. Anyone ever wonder why so many businesses keep moving outside the city limits (NAMI, Intercon, Full Compass, Spectrum, even the Dept of Financial Institutions want to)? Bars would too except most of their customers lack efficient transportation to get there. Way too many know-it-alls and do-gooders who don't have their own life in order wanting to run everyone else's. Good luck Madison - one day you will wonder why you have a major cash flow problem.


A better way to handle it ...would be a better way.


If there was a way to make money, someone would find a way to do it. But, they already have. Vertical drinking establishments is apparently what people want. If they limit those, people won't show up on State St. to hang out in overcrowded bars.

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