Businesses react to potential freeze on downtown liquor licenses

Businesses react to potential freeze on downtown liquor licenses

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is proposing to freeze the issuance of any new liquor licenses for the downtown area in the name of keeping the area “uniquely Madison.”

Soglin said he recently returned from Austin, Texas, convinced that he needed to push for change on the street, and said he’s been concerned for a few years that State Street could turn into an entertainment district like Austin’s Sixth Street.

“I felt now we’ve got to have this discussion because otherwise if we ignore it the decisions will be made, and one day people will wake up and say ‘Whatever happened to State Street?'” Soglin said.

Soglin said there’s more alcohol available on the street now and not enough retail, in part because of high rent. He believes the city stepping in to prevent new liquor licenses will freeze costs and bring in new bookstores, art galleries and gift shops.

“Go watch Scott Van Pelt on ESPN every time he mentions Madison and State Street,” Soglin said. “They’re not talking about a street that’s just simply liquor and made out of plastic.”

Numbers provided by the mayor’s office show that the balance of businesses has shifted in the last 20 years. In 1998 bars made up 27 percent of State Street square footage, with 73 percent either retail or office space. Now 37 percent is bars, restaurants or specialty food, and 63 percent is retail and office space.

Fair Trade Coffee has been in the 400 block of State Street for almost 11 years. Co-owner Lori Henn said while she has seen businesses come and go, liquor hasn’t been a problem.

“Are we lacking for places to find a beer or glass of wine in the downtown area? I don’t think so,” Henn said.

She said she’d like to see liquor limited, but isn’t sure that’s the solution to creating a more diverse business environment, citing issues landlords face with city taxes, and choosing businesses that will become profitable enough to pay the rents.

“It’s a number of things at play here,” Henn said. “To single out liquor licenses I think is a false explanation of the problem. It’s one factor in many factors.”

Soglin said he’s concerned overall that the Madison flavor is leaving the street, and some businesses that left the area also prompted him to raise the issue.

“The loss of Gino’s, which by the way had a liquor license, and the replacement of it with that candy store that looks like it belongs up in the Dells,” Soglin said of one recent business change.

That candy store, It’s Sugar, moved in in May.

“I think we’re very appropriate for this area,” General Manager John Nelson said.

The national chain picked Madison as its first college town location, and Nelson said it’s been a great spot so far. He questioned whether change is needed among the businesses on the street.

“Honestly, I think we do have a good mix of businesses,” Nelson said. “We have coffee shops, and if you’re in a college town you need coffee shops. Quite honestly, in any college town you’re going to need a bar too.”

As for what’s next, Soglin said he wants to hear what the community thinks about the issue before moving ahead with any policy, which could include having the alcohol license review committee suspend licensing, or making a zoning change. He said he’ll evaluate what to do in the next couple or weeks.