Plenty of bars in Utah – if you can find them
SALT LAKE CITY – Utah is easing its liquor laws to encourage tourism, but the state’s most-visited city needs to prepare for a buzz kill.A review of state records shows that Utah is quickly running out of liquor licenses for bars and restaurants, creating the possibility that Salt Lake City won’t be able to create, for years to come, the downtown entertainment district tourism leaders are craving.State lawmakers, most of whom are Mormon and do not drink, limit the number of bars and restaurants that can serve liquor based on the state’s population.Currently, no more than 361 bars can open in Utah and no more than 546 restaurants can serve beer, wine and liquor.After awarding several licenses last week, only 12 liquor licenses remain for bars and 15 remain for restaurants in the entire state.Once Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officials receive new population figures in June, the number of available licenses could drop significantly because of previous overestimations.The dwindling supply of licenses is a direct threat to Mayor Ralph Becker’s goal of creating a bustling downtown nightlife district. Downtown Salt Lake City has plenty of bars, clubs and restaurants, but finding and getting to them can be a nightmare for tourists thanks to a decades-old city ordinance that limits the number of bars that can operate to two per block face.Becker is seeking to lift the two-bar limit so existing pockets of nightlife – however small – can continue to grow on the heels of a major change in state law. Effective July 1, customers will no longer have to fill out an application and pay a fee to enter a bar.The change could allow Salt Lake City to operate in a manner similar to the resort town of Park City, where the historic Main Street is lined with bars, restaurants and – most importantly during ski season – people.Becker says he’ll introduce a Salt Lake proposal by the end of the year, but by then every available liquor license could already be snapped up by businesses across the state. New licenses would only become available as existing ones are forfeited or the population grows.”I hope we don’t miss this window,” said City Councilman Luke Garrott, a University of Utah political science professor who favors lifting the two-bar limit.
The Utah Hospitality Association, which represents the state’s bar industry, calls the state’s quota system “completely arbitrary” and is considering asking the Legislature to amend it when it convenes in January, said Lisa Marcy, the association’s lawyer.Becker, the former House minority leader, also said he’s willing to lobby lawmakers on the issue. Salt Lake City, the state’s capital and economic and cultural center, shouldn’t be hamstrung in its efforts to create a vibrant downtown.However, it’s unclear how much of an appetite conservative state lawmakers will have to revisit the Utah liquor laws. Many only agreed to the recent changes because they were assured it wouldn’t result in any more bars opening up, per the state’s quota system.The state is also on the verge of losing its biggest booster for liquor law changes as a means to make the state more appealing to tourists – Gov. Jon Huntsman. The Republican has been tapped by President Barack Obama to be the next U.S. ambassador to China and will likely leave before the Legislature convenes in January.While Utah is becoming more accommodating to those who drink alcohol, tourism leaders say the lack of a concentrated nightlife district is still a problem for visitors, who quickly become frustrated wandering long distances in search of a place to eat or get a drink.Scott Beck, CEO of the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, says tourists like to be around other people and have plenty of choices within a short range. He’d like a nightlife district to evolve within a mile radius of the Salt Palace convention center, where an outdoor shopping mall, an arena and performance theaters already exist and more than a dozen bars are scattered across city blocks that are more than twice the length of a football field.”That is what our visitors like to see. It is really hard to send someone, because of how big our blocks are, on a restaurant hunt on a four-block radius,” said Beck. “If everyone was given a bike or a pedicab around for free it might be different, but the fact of the matter is when you’re new to a city, to be sent to a LoDo (in Denver) is a nice thing.”LoDo, short for Lower Downtown in Denver, is typical of many entertainment districts around the country. It features a plethora of restaurants, bars and shops in mixed-use developments that are within walking distance of each other and is teeming with people on any given evening.
In contrast, Salt Lake City’s downtown streets are often devoid of people after sunset.”This city is dead. There’s nothing around anywhere and nothing’s open,” said Sheila Richardson, who was returning to her downtown hotel on a recent Thursday evening while in town on business from Atlanta.Salt Lake City wasn’t always that way.”I think there has been a legitimate difference of opinion about quality of life and in the past the city had … what we’d call entertainment districts today. They were called red light districts in the past,” Garrott said.He said the city’s unique cultural makeup as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is partly responsible for the city’s current restrictions, which he believes need to change along with the city.”Salt Lake City has to change. It’s not a city of saints and sinners any more. Most of us want the free choice that modern society offers and that means there’s a lot more potential for consensus. It’s a much more cosmopolitan place than it was even 10 years ago,” he said.Deno Dakis, owner of Gracie’s, a large downtown pub set to open in June that will cater to tourists and locals, said it would be helpful if other bars could locate in the same area downtown near hotels and where the Utah Jazz play to liven up the city center.”I would prefer an entertainment district to bring people back from the suburbs and into the city,” said Dakis, who has been involved in Salt Lake City’s bar industry for 16 years.Garrott said he understands fears that Salt Lake City would turn into a wild party town, but he says they’re unfounded because of the very nature of the city’s residents.”Because so few of us do drink, some, I think, have the fear of a mass proliferation of bars,” said Garrott, who is not Mormon. “It won’t happen to Salt Lake City. It doesn’t have enough drinkers here.”
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