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Downtown Madison proposed liquor license moratorium sees little support after delay

October 22, 2018 GMT

Mayor Paul Soglin’s proposed moratorium on new liquor licenses in Downtown Madison is getting little support as it begins to move through the city legislative process following months of delays.

The idea of a moratorium was rejected by two committees and met opposition from members of Madison’s alcohol licensing body this week, even after Soglin offered a revised plan that would provide some exemptions for restaurants and scale back the affected area.

Instead, city officials have backed a different idea to gather interested parties to study alcohol density, related problems and potential solutions.

Ald. Paul Skidmore, who supports the moratorium, said he is glad to see the conversation moving after “languishing” for months while a compromise to the liquor license ban was explored.

“The optimism I’m getting from this is we’re starting to move in a direction that we’re finally going to start talking about identifying what the problems are and coming up with solutions,” he said.

Soglin did not respond to a request for comment.

In January, the mayor offered an initial plan that would apply a moratorium to a broad swath of central Madison, arguing it was needed to combat alcohol-fueled violence and other issues affecting Downtown.

The plan called for banning new alcohol licenses in an approximately 45-block area, including the State Street, University Avenue and Regent Street areas. The only exemption would be for newly built hotels.

The moratorium was put on hold for months as Downtown Alds. Mike Verveer, Zach Wood and Ledell Zellers negotiated with Soglin, but talks came to a standstill, particularly around conditions that would be put on restaurants seeking a liquor license, said Verveer, 4th District.

Earlier this year, Soglin revised his proposal to build in exemptions for restaurants if they meet certain conditions, such as providing table service to customers and restricting customers from spending more money on alcohol than on food unless the total cost of food is over $50 — conditions Verveer said are “unduly complicated and cumbersome to enforce.”

Soglin is also proposing the creation of a 13-member task force to guide alcohol policy. The new proposal reduces the moratorium area to about 26 blocks, centered around the 200 through 600 blocks of State Street and part of University Avenue.

The trio of Downtown council members are instead backing a resolution acknowledging that city staff are already studying the issue. It calls on staff to engage with UW-Madison officials, business groups, neighborhood organizations and others on the topic without having a formal task force.

Verveer said city staff are opposed to a task force with monthly meetings and agendas because of administrative concerns to run it. He said he hopes to find a middle ground that would codify an input process for interested parties and have gatherings that are subject to the open meetings law.

On Tuesday, the council’s Executive Committee voted 4-1 against the moratorium, instead backing the council members’ plan.

Although the Alcohol License Review Committee — the lead body in charge of the proposal — opted again to push back a vote on the moratorium Wednesday, members informally shared how they would vote on it, with a majority in opposition.

“I feel like we’ve delayed a vote on this for months,” committee member Stefan Fletcher said. “We’re at a point where we should probably take a stand on the moratorium.”

Despite seemingly being ready to turn down the moratorium idea, the committee voted to delay its recommendation at the request of Verveer, who argued that three other city bodies should have the opportunity to weigh in before the alcohol-licensing body sends its recommendation to the City Council.

Committee members expressed a desire to make a formal recommendation during their Nov. 21 meeting.

On Thursday, the Downtown Coordinating Committee unanimously voted to shelve the moratorium and back the council plan. The two remaining bodies slated to weigh in are the Equal Opportunities Commission and Public Safety Review Committee.

Jason Ilstrup, president of Downtown Madison Inc., said his organization opposes the moratorium plan and backs a more holistic approach to alcohol policies viewed through a public health lens.

A current provision in city law, set to expire July 1, acts as a moratorium on certain businesses in part of Downtown.

The law restricts new taverns and liquor stores in the 500 and 600 blocks of State Street, the north side of the 600 block of University Avenue, the 400 blocks of North Frances and West Gilman streets and the west side of the 400 block of North Broom Street.