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As alcohol becomes big business, Gainesville ponders pouring policies
City leaders seek to update rules, maintain balance amid growing demand
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There are perhaps two ways that continued changes to Gainesville’s alcohol ordinance can be viewed: The code is either falling apart or it is progressing with the times.

Whatever the perspective, more changes are possible, if not likely, in the near future.

“We ... are in the process of evaluating what modifications we may need to re-present to council,” City Manager Bryan Lackey said. “We are in no rush but do plan to address this later this year.”

City officials recently met with local business owners, including the owners of Downtown Drafts, Avocado’s and Sweet Acre Farms, to gauge how well recent amendments to the ordinance have served them.

“I think that was a constructive meeting that we had,” Councilman Zack Thompson said. “Our alcohol ordinance has evolved rather quickly.”

Not all changes are equal, however.

The meeting was prompted by opposition from some local businesses to a proposal earlier this year to lower the amount of wine that can be served for tastings from 24 ounces to 8 ounces.

The proposal was eventually sidelined.

Nick Hoecker, owner of Downtown Drafts in the Gainesville square, a cafe whose specialty is growlers, or beer to-go, said lowering the amount of wine he can serve on site would turn away customers.

Hoecker said his business is based on patrons tasting different beers and wines at cheap prices before deciding on more expensive growler or bottle purchases.

Lackey said better communication with local businesses could help “ minimize or eliminate impacts to them.”

Recent amendments to the city’s alcohol ordinance include new licensing for farm wineries and breweries; allowing non-restaurant retail service businesses, such as a nail salon, to obtain on-site alcohol consumption licenses; and approving new restaurants and businesses with an alcoholic beverage license to have a sidewalk café.

They are meant to promote new businesses, streamline permitting, eliminate outdated restrictions and better align with state regulations.

When city officials last year released a downtown strategic plan to guide and manage growth around the square, one of the priorities identified was spurring new events, nightlife and living spaces.

Hoecker said he hopes to be a part of this. But to do so, he added, he needs the city to liberalize its permitting process for alcohol sales.

When permits are issued during special events like concerts on the square, Downtown Drafts can serve more like a bar as patrons are unrestricted in how much they can consume during a six-hour window.

Hoecker wants to increase the number of permits allowed per month (the limit is two) to strike a more favorable balance.

“We don’t have to be unlimited all the time,” he said.

But having the option to piggyback on more events in the square, such as First Fridays, could pay huge dividends for his business and the community, Hoecker said.

“There’s a lot of cool stuff we could do out here,” he said, including drawing in food trucks, charity events and regional craft beer distributors.

Hoecker also said he would like to see Downtown Drafts be able to serve as much as 34 ounces to each patron on site. The current restriction is 24 ounces.

Thompson, meanwhile, is not only a councilman. He also co-owns Tap It Gainesville Growlers on Thompson Bridge Road, so he’s in a unique position when it comes to evaluating how well the current alcohol ordinance serves local businesses.

His own growlers cafe has generated lots of interest and positive feedback, he said, while helping to grow the city’s craft beer culture.

“I think that if it’s good for our businesses then it’s going to be good for our city,” Thompson said.

Tap It, for example, will host Lanier Brew Fest 2016 from 2 to 8 p.m. Saturday, which will feature select brews from Gainesville’s new Left Nut Brewing Co.

However, Thompson said he thinks the alcohol ordinance is good where it’s at right now.

“It’s kind of tough to balance because I don’t want to come across as if I’m looking at the alcohol ordinance for personal gain,” he said. “I’m not.”

Thompson said he could get on board with allowing more special event permits per month, but overdoing it could actually be bad for business by oversaturating the market.

Keeping events infrequent enough to hold interest and appeal is key, he added.

One part of the code that may still be a ways from changing is the city’s requirement that restaurants selling alcohol make half their revenue from food sales.

City officials have said there is little appetite to modify the alcohol-to-food sales ratio.

Thompson said he thinks certain protections are written into the ordinance to ensure that package stores, restaurants, growlers and breweries each have a slice of the pie without creating competition between the differing kinds of alcohol sellers.

“I think that’s why those restrictions are there,” Thompson said.

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