Our Views: City of Janesville right to loosen reins on drinking, sales of alcohol

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

For decades, Janesville has taken a teetotaler’s approach to alcohol sales and drinking in parks and other public places.

Maybe it has to do with efforts to cork underage drinking, a problem that’s likely no larger here than in other Wisconsin cities. Maybe it’s an attempt to curb drunken driving in a city where hundreds of residents have been convicted a staggering four or more times.

Underage drinkers seldom buy alcohol from liquor stores. They get beer and booze from home, older siblings or drinking-age adults willing to sell it to them. Likewise, a problem drinker will always find a way to get that next bottle.

Rather than fret over our culture of alcohol, city fathers must decide policies and how to best use city facilities and foster economic development in a community needing much more. Fortunately, officials are starting to loosen the reins.

For years the city has allowed alcohol sales at its two golf courses. In recent years, the city council OK’d sales at Rotary Gardens, senior center events and at the ice arena during Janesville Jets games. Last year, it approved selling beer permits for people renting certain pavilions at Palmer, Riverside and Traxler parks and selling beer at Dawson Ball Fields not just during weekend softball tournaments but during adult league games.

These opportunities led to few if any alcohol-related problems. Shelley Slapak, recreation director, reported that drinkers at Dawson were respectful and caused no trouble.

Dawson beer sales rang up $9,400. That helped the city clear about $8,000 in concessions sold at three parks. That’s on top of $5,000 in one-time expenses as the city took over sales from a vendor. As The Gazette reported Jan. 3, Slapak hopes to net more money in coming years.

Meanwhile, alcohol permits at pavilions encourage more park use. For years, the city fielded inquiries from residents about renting pavilions for wedding receptions and reunions. When groups learned alcohol was banned, they went elsewhere.

The city also is considering changing two ordinances that restrict retail liquor sales. The city might drop its quota that allows one Class A license for every 3,500 residents. All 19 are in use. It also might drop the requirement that stores sell alcohol separate from other products, a rule that drives up construction and staffing costs. Both changes make sense. The city’s alcohol license advisory committee discussed the proposals Tuesday and suggested more tweaks.

Ryan Garcia, economic development coordinator, surveyed 10 comparable cities and found that only three have quotas and that Janesville’s is the most restrictive. He’s right that a city with strong policing, proper zoning and a licensing committee shouldn’t self-impose an  arbitrary number of Class A licenses. Instead, let market forces dictate.

Garcia told reporter Marcia Nelesen he often hears from people wishing downtown Janesville could attract a diner and grocery like Beloit’s Bushel & Peck’s. Janesville’s restrictions, he said, might discourage any such development, as well as national retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s.

Letting people drink responsibly in a few public facilities is helping the city make better use of them, raise revenues and reduce needed tax dollars. This money could help preserve recreation programs as budget pressures mount.

It’s time to take the next step and drop restrictions that hinder development.

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