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Utah relaxing liquor laws to entice tourists

Published: 06/22/2009
Utah's liquor laws are set to relax July 1, bringing them more in line with those of the rest of the nation, but don't expect Salt Lake City to morph into Sin City any time soon.

"It's not like we have to turn into Las Vegas to attract convention and tourist business," said Scott Beck, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's not like we need to walk around with 30-ounce margaritas around our necks."

Utah made history this year by eliminating its 40-year-old private-club system, which required would-be drinkers to purchase a membership. The move is expected to boost tourism and convention business as word of the state's less-restrictive laws spreads to other states.

In exchange for the move, the state Legislature tightened DUI laws and required bars to scan the driver's licenses of anyone who appears younger than 35.

What concerns some officials is that the state did nothing to loosen its grip on the number of liquor licenses that can be issued.

Utah links the number of liquor licenses for bars and restaurants to the state's population. The state currently can award a total of 361 licenses for bars and 546 for restaurants that serve beer, wine and liquor.

As of this week, there were 14 applicants for eight remaining licenses available for bars, also known as clubs, said Sharon Mackay, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The situation for restaurants was only slightly better, with 18 licenses still available to provide beer, wine and liquor at establishments that also serve food. The department will decide how to dole out the licenses, which had only eight applicants as of Thursday, at its June 24 meeting.

"Right now we're getting very close to the quota," Mrs. Mackay said.

Any increase in the number of liquor licenses available must be approved by the Legislature, which already surprised many residents this year by removing some of its longtime impediments to public displays of imbibing.

The legislature agreed to tear down the so-called "Zion Curtain," the glass partition that separated bartenders from customers in a setup similar to all-night gas stations and convenience stores. The move allows bartenders to serve their patrons directly over the bar, instead of having to walk around the partition.

More significantly, lawmakers ended the system that classified hard-liquor bars as clubs that could only serve members, requiring customers to fill out an application and pay a small fee before they could be served. Still, certain features of the law gave savvy Utahns ways to work around it.

For example, those who didn't belong to the clubs could also gain admission as the guest of a sponsoring club member, which sometimes led to one club member "sponsoring" everyone in the bar.

Both laws were unique to Utah and could be traced to the state's strong ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which advises its members to abstain from drinking.

Lisa Marcy, counsel to the Utah Hospitality Association, which lobbied for the changes, said that increasing the number of licenses this year would have been politically impossible.

"That would have been shooting for too much," Ms. Marcy said. "We didn't think we could do both. We needed to keep our eye on one or the other."

Many analysts assumed that any changes in Utah's liquor laws would be politically impossible, given the church's strong statewide influence. What made it possible was the combination of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, which expanded the city's entertainment district and convention center, and a governor receptive to loosening the laws.

"We were told at the beginning of 2007, 'Don't even try to eliminate the private clubs,' " Ms. Marcy said. "But we were almost defunct before this, so we decided, 'Hey, what do we have to lose?' "

The hope is that convention and tourism business will increase as word spreads of Utah's normalized liquor laws, Mr. Beck said.

"This really sends the message that Salt Lake City, with its 1.2 million residents, is a lot more like other cities than unlike other cities," he said.