By Julia Ritchey
Savannah takes few things more seriously than its history, architecture and fairly liberal drinking culture.
So when a 31-page overhaul of its alcohol ordinance was unleashed onto the public the Friday before Labor Day, it came as a surprise to bar and restaurant owners whose establishments would be most affected.
These owners and managers took to Facebook and the city’s public forums this week to voice concerns about several of the draft’s provisions, though most acknowledged revisiting the city’s 15-year-old ordinance was overdue.
Most of the industry’s concerns boil down to about four key areas, including the repeal of a “hybrid” license to be replaced by a more expensive late-night one, beefed up security requirements, the elimination of bar cards and the rights afforded to adults ages 18-20.
Sean Brandon, Savannah’s management services chief, said the city was trying to strike the right balance between public and private interests. He said much of the new ordinance was an attempt to be more consistent with state law.
“We want something that makes the community better,” said Brandon.
Although the ordinance states it would be enacted for “purposes of establishing reasonable and ascertainable standards for the regulation and control of alcoholic beverages,” the debate over what constitutes reasonable has been acute.
Michael Owens, president of the Tourism Leadership Council, said he fielded calls and emails from about 60 owners and managers over Labor Day Weekend pertaining to the ordinance.
“The real question is: What is the exact problem that we’re trying to solve?” said Owens. “I think our issues are really more outside the establishment than inside the establishment, and I’d be happy to hear the thoughts and considerations of the city on how they intend to address that problem.”
By Tuesday, the date of the first public meeting on the ordinance, at least one proposal was nullified after the city received near unanimous criticism for trying to restrict 18- to 20-year-olds from restaurants serving alcohol after 10 p.m.
The draft, which had been in the works for more than a year, had stipulated midnight originally, but some restaurant and bar owners questioned the logic of having a curfew at all in a town with such a heavy military and college presence.
Jamie Durrence and Alan Williams, managing partner and director of operations for Daniel Reed Hospitality, which operates Soho South Café, Local 11ten and The Public Kitchen & Bar, said the regulation of legal adults with a curfew was unacceptable.
“Members of the military and SCAD students are a huge client base for our restaurants,” Durrence said in a statement. “It just does not seem very hospitable and makes little sense considering you can legally bartend in the state of Georgia at 18 years and pilot an aircraft at 17. But not eat where alcohol is served after 10 p.m. or midnight? Unimaginable.”
On Wednesday, the Georgia Restaurants Association spent most of its two-hour meeting at the Pirate’s House going page-by-page through the ordinance to explain the new regulations to its members.
Mike Vaquer, the association’s lobbyist, said he’d been working with the city on the ordinance since June of last year. While the city is being diligent in trying to get its ordinance caught up with the times, he said, there were still areas for concern.
“There are more questions than there are answers here, but we’ve come a long way,” Vaquer told members.
Late-night licenses and security
The elimination of a $250 “hybrid” license for establishments that transition into bars (or furniture stores serving spirits) was touted as an improvement. However, in its place, the city is proposing a $450 late-night entertainment establishment license for any bar or restaurant open past midnight.
The city said the provision was not meant as a revenue generator but as a regulatory tool to better police establishments having problems in the late-night hours, i.e. nightclubs such as the now-shuttered Dosha and Frozen Paradise.
Currently, about 30 bars hold hybrid licenses. City staff could not provide an exact number for how many establishments would be required to have the proposed late-night license, though it would likely be much higher.
The owners of Lulu’s Chocolate Bar said they were originally classified as a hybrid bar until they appealed the decision based on the fact they operate the same business all day. Co-owner Rebecca Radovich said the idea of having to pay an extra fee and get bouncers for her casual dessert bar is just silly.
“We’re not part of that late-night exodus problem,” said Radovich at Tuesday’s forum. “To be lumped back into that after we just got out … that’s one of our biggest concerns.”
TLC’s Owens said he too is concerned.
“Making anybody that’s serving alcohol after midnight to have security under penalty of law seems to be a little bit of an overstretch,” said Owens. “Think of the Pink House. At midnight, are they supposed to bring in uniformed security? That may not be the impression that they want nor we as a city want at all of these establishments.”
Vaquer said he is encouraging staff to take a look at the operational footprint of a business in order to not cast such a wide net.
“If I go into an establishment at noon … and I go back in at 1 a.m. and it looks exactly the same, then we’re not changing our business model. We’re continuing to operate as we have been,” said Vaquer.
In concert with the proposed license fee is additional security requirements for bars of certain occupancy loads.
For example, a bar with an occupancy load of 101-200, like The Jinx, would be required to have one door person and two additional security people on Friday and Saturday nights after midnight and on six major holidays.
Language pertaining to security requirements for these late-night establishments is lifted verbatim, in parts, from Charleston, S.C.’s municipal code. City staff met with Charleston officials and looked at other codes such as Scottsdale, Ariz., when formulating the new ordinance, said city spokesman Bret Bell.
Read the full article.