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.