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Cheers! Salt Lake City erases downtown bar limit

Published: 12/09/2009
With just a handful of residents and a Boy Scout troop looking on, Salt Lake City made a seminal change in its alcohol rules Tuesday, eliminating downtown's two-bar-per-block restriction that has vexed tourists and business travelers for decades.

Remarkably, pushback was as weak as Utah's 3.2 percent beer.

"The rule put us on a par with Kentucky," joked Christian Harrison, chairman of the Downtown Community Council. "Who wants to be associated with Kentucky?"

Indeed, Mayor Ralph Becker and this council argue the "outdated" law serves little purpose, stifles economic development and stamps out the city's social pulse. Clustering bars near public transit, they agree, could reel in visitors, reduce drunken driving and send a signal that Utah's capital doesn't shut down after dark.

"It's a reflection that we're growing up as a city," Becker said about the unanimous vote. "We have diverse needs. We have antiquated laws. It's an important step in creating a downtown we all want."

Sipping a drink at a Main Street pub Tuesday, Kathy Embleton said the change will help propel a city that is "behind the times."

"It's good for culture and it brings in business - for theater, for ballet," she said. "Downtown is the cultural expression that is outside of one belief. This is where it happens."

But maybe not.

The relaxed rule could be for naught since the state's stash of liquor permits quickly is drying up. And despite the vote, Becker's team does not plan to lobby the Legislature for more permits - at least not in the 2010 session.

"It's great but there's no licenses now," laments Del Vance, owner of the Beerhive Pub at 128 S. Main. "Unless they change the quota system, based on the population, I don't think it's going to help."

Given recent statements by prominent state lawmakers, such a change seems like a longshot. Another solution - to free up permits by requiring resorts only carry a single license - is fraught with liability concerns.

Becker remains optimistic, saying it will take time for the implications of the city's new business growth - including the LDS Church's $1.5 billion City Creek Center - to play out.

The reform won't trump Utah law, which prohibits alcohol within 600 feet of a church, school or park. "This isn't going against the grain of state law," Becker emphasized.

Still, it marks the biggest change in the business of serving alcohol since former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ushered the end to Utah's quirky private-club law.

Each time former Mayor Rocky Anderson raised the idea of allowing more bars downtown, it was beaten back for reasons both political and personal. Council Chairman Carlton Christensen, who served during Anderson's two terms, credits Becker for "framing it for what it is."

"It's not an issue in regards to consumption," he said. "As we evaluated it, the proximity of one to another was not relevant and didn't achieve anything."

Residents, in resounding fashion, agreed. In responses tracked by the mayor's office, 130 people favored the change compared to only 26 who raised questions. Outside of Harrison, you could hear crickets at the public hearing.

"It happened because there was a lot of outreach," explained Councilman Luke Garrott, who represents downtown and also credited Becker. "It was really wide and it was really deep. I thank people for their open minds. Our downtown is going to be more like a downtown now."

Councilman J.T. Martin notes the new rule, which goes into effect immediately, has the support of both business owners, the chamber, and the religious community.

During his 25-year stay in Utah, Vance says he never could understand why the state's most liberal city had stricter bar regulations than the rest of the state. "Imagine Ogden without 25th Street," he smiled. "Or Park City without Main Street."

Anticipating crowds drawn to nearby City Creek, Vance chose the location for his pub on purpose. "I wanted to get as close to that mall as possible, because there's no way they're going to allow bars in there," he motioned. "I guess there's probably a lot of other people thinking the same."

Permits permitting, they now have a chance. The amended zoning impacts the downtown business district, bordered roughly by North Temple and 1000 South, and 200 East to 600 West.

Eating a late lunch with drinks at Murphy's Bar & Grill, Dan Frattura and Drew Rockafellow say the change may help the capital's reputation, despite the 3.2 percent "near beer."

"We come from Philadelphia - we're used to bars every foot," Frattura said. "I have a cousin in Steamboat Springs, he says that's why people don't come to Salt Lake City - there's not that many places to come out."

Farther down the bar, Minneapolis transplant Erin Morgan warns clustering bars can be taken advantage of. "If it becomes a scene in downtown, people straight up come to get wasted," she said. "It can be disorderly."

But with just 180,000 people living in the capital, Becker's Economic Development Director Bob Farrington notes the market only can sustain so much bar business.

Even so, part two of Becker's so called "alcohol normalization" calls for a massive rezone to allow bars in neighborhood commercial centers.

Unlike the crickets over downtown, that debate - set for early next year - figures to get loud.