Council delays alcohol license vote

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Marcia Nelesen
Tuesday, March 25, 2014

JANESVILLE--Two small business owners pleaded with the Janesville City Council Monday to increase the number of alcohol licenses available so they would have a level playing field to compete with other businesses.

Several other speakers, though, said more licenses would only make more alcohol available and harm residents.

The council delayed the vote to until Monday, April 14, because councilmen Brian Fitzgerald and Sam Liebert were absent. Both have previously said they would vote against expanding the number of licenses and both said they wanted to be present for the vote.

Council President Kathy Voskuil was the sole member to vote against delaying the vote.

Available licenses are rationed to one per 3,500 people, and none of the 19 are currently available.

The city's alcohol license advisory committee recommended the council decrease the ratio to one per 2,500 people, meaning an additional seven licenses. City staff erred earlier when members said the change would mean five more licenses.

Economic development staff suggested the change would help the city compete when attracting business. The majority of peer cities do not have quotas and rely instead on the marketplace to regulate licenses.

Staff also proposed a procedure be implemented so the council could OK temporary licenses if the new licenses run out, and Councilman Douglas Marklein asked staff to bring such a proposal to the next meeting.

“How are we going to be able to balance the small-niche market with the established businesses … I don't see how we can support one or turn another one down,” he said.

Marklein anticipated a rush of businesses applying for licenses and wondered how they could be fairly distributed.

Fitzgerald at a previous meeting had spoken against the change and predicted more liquor licenses would put small, local enterprises out of business.

Lucy Newell-Anderson on Monday, however, said she owns one of those small businesses and cannot get a license.

“I've talked to many and question whether it is the job of the city council to protect businesses from competition.”

Newell-Anderson owns Lucy's Loon Lake Coffee & Deli inside Basics Cooperative Natural Foods.

The council didn't seem too concerned about her competition when Panera Bread, a large sandwich chain, announced plans to open down the block.

“I didn't see the city of Janesville protecting me from competition," she said.

Newell-Anderson said she welcomes competition and believes it is good for the business and the consumer.

Basics wants to fill customers' requests for organic beer and wine, she said. Both would like to offer wine and cheese pairings that their customers now leave the city to enjoy, she said.

If the city wants to help small business, she suggested lowering property taxes or applying common sense to codes, for example.

“But don't try to protect us from competition,” she said.

“I don't want somebody else to decide whether or not I can compete with them and, frankly, I think I can,” she said. “Please give me that choice. I can't improve unless this ordinance passes.”

John Rocco, who owns Farmhouse Brewing Supply, said he's been trying to get a liquor license since he opened. He specializes in home brewing and said his customers come from all over. But he is unable to sell them Wisconsin craft beers once they get here and must send them to other stores.

That is revenue he could use, he said.

 “I understand issues with alcoholism, and unfortunately, that's just a reality. At some point, I think that other people's issues shouldn't be cast upon everybody else,” he said.

He liked the idea of the council considering additional licenses on a case-by-case basis, if members would only give the licenses to local, specialized businesses such as his own.

On the other side, Sarah C. Johnson, coalition director for Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change, said Janesville has no “pent up demand” for more alcohol. More licenses would not improve Janesville but instead would jeopardize the health of the community and increase crime, she predicted.

Mark Flottum, who works in drug and alcohol prevention, said he and others want to change the state's drinking culture.

“We want to slowly change the culture,” he said. “We need your help to not start to erode the work we have been doing over the past 20 years.”

Mark Bumpus, who said he represents the Red Road House, a transitional housing facility for addicts, asked the council to “keep a lid” on the number of alcohol licenses. He said he wouldn't feel “safe” in Sam's Club if it had a license.

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