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With changes to alcohol regulations, whats next for Gainesville?
Debate over alcohol-to-food sales ratio continues
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City Council has approved several changes to Gainesville’s alcohol ordinance since the beginning of 2014. The amendments to Gainesville’s alcohol ordinance are meant to promote new business, streamline permitting, eliminate outdated restrictions and better align with state regulations. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Major changes to local and state alcohol laws in last year

  • New licensing for farm wineries and breweries in Gainesville
  • Allowing sidewalk cafes for more businesses in Gainesville
  • New powers for City Marshal to enforce alcohol regulations
  • Allowing non-restaurant retail service businesses, such as a nail salon, to obtain on-site alcohol consumption licenses in the city
  • Allowing craft breweries across the state to let customers take home as much as 72 ounces of beer

For a community long accustomed to unusual restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, it’s been a remarkable change of pace for Gainesville to amend its ordinances over the last year or so to accommodate businesses serving up beer, liquor and wine.

But the thirst of some to scrap or modify one of the city’s most contentious regulations on alcohol has not yet been quenched.

The city requires that restaurants selling alcohol make half their revenue from food sales.

It’s a way to balance economic interests with small-town sensibilities, but like so many things in the modern age, this regulation might go by the wayside in the coming years. That is, if recent trends hold.


Loosening restrictions

The City Council has approved several changes to Gainesville’s alcohol ordinance since the beginning of 2014, which are meant to promote new businesses, streamline permitting, eliminate outdated restrictions and better align with state regulations.

In fact, city officials undertook the task of rewriting whole sections of the ordinance, and cutting out others,
earlier this year.

Changes included lowering seating requirements at restaurants; allowing for a monetary fine in place of a suspension of an alcohol license for ordinance violations; giving the city marshal full authority to approve or deny alcohol licenses; expanding taste tests at local farm wineries and growlers; allowing non-restaurant retail service businesses, such as a nail salon, to obtain on-site consumption licenses; and allowing for the sale and consumption of alcohol in parks upon city approval.

Additional changes allow home brewers to host events, and create licenses for farm winery tasting rooms, brewpubs and special events.

And just this week, city officials approved allowing some restaurants, and businesses with an alcoholic beverage license, to have a sidewalk café.

“Not all of the eating establishments on the (downtown) square (serve) alcoholic beverages,” said City Marshal Debbie Jones.

All these changes have helped pave the way for the emergence of the city’s first brewery, as well as two locations selling growlers, or beer straight from the tap and sealed in glass jars to
take home.

“These have worked well, I feel,” said Councilman Bob Hamrick.

From the city’s perspective, making room for new alcohol-oriented businesses is a kind of economic development tool.

And this motivation coincides with the emphasis placed by state and local tourism agencies on promoting North Georgia’s culinary and drink destinations this year, with an eye on the emergence of growler bars and breweries.

Hamrick said he supported the changes as a way to try out new ideas and spur more activity, particularly downtown.

“This is primarily why we did it,” Hamrick said. “Of course, I’m a teetotaler.”

There is a tradition of abstinence-related laws in Georgia that restrict when and where alcohol can be bought and sold.

The state, after all, only ended its ban on Sunday sales in 2011.

And last year the town of Clermont, for example, voted to keep its prohibition on beer and wine sales after more than a month of deliberation spurred by the Rey Mexican Restaurant and Happy Food Mart.

But things, however slowly, appear to be headed toward more lax restrictions.

While on-site sales by local breweries remain banned, a new state law allows customers to take home up to 72 ounces of beer after touring a craft brewery.

“As long as the people respect the regulations and do not abuse it, I think, yes, it’s going to continue,” Hamrick said of the trend in favor of loosening alcohol prohibitions.

The moves have been hailed by many local residents and business owners who believe alcohol ordinances have stifled industry growth.

Doug Singleton, owner of Mule Camp Tavern in the downtown area, said he has seen the city progressing in recent years, adding that the better his business does, and the less hurdles he has to jump over, the better off the city will be.

But the prospect of additional tax revenue isn’t enough to sway Councilman George Wangemann.

He said he did not support amendments to the alcohol ordinance because he believes they will encourage more people to drink irresponsibly, placing a larger burden on public safety agencies.

“It’s definitely leading to that,” Wangemann said. “And eventually that’s going to lead to open bars … kind of like they have in Buckhead.”

 

The times they are a-changing?

When the City Council approved changes to the alcohol ordinance earlier this year, some residents and business owners urged officials to scrap the requirement that restaurants serving alcohol make at least 50 percent of their revenue from food sales.

Officials did recently give the city marshal the power to request a suspension or revocation hearing if restaurants fail to meet the 50 percent requirement for two consecutive quarters, rather than placing the business on probation.

But no movement has been made to modify the alcohol-to-food sales ratio, which sparks debate every few years, according to some officials.

“We’ve talked about that in the past,” said Councilwoman Ruth Bruner. “But I think we ought to look at it …”

Bruner said being “business friendly” means striking a balance between economic interests and quality of life.

The alcohol-to-food sales ratio is “just such a hard threshold” to meet, Bruner said, particularly for businesses that are seasonally reliant on such sales.

Singleton said adjusting the ratio could be lucrative for Mule Camp Tavern and the city.

A change could also help alleviate the frustration sometimes associated with trying to balance alcohol and food sales.

For example, Singleton said Mule Camp Tavern once had to work with the city to ensure that sales at the door, such as cover charges, or from vending, were not being counted against the limit on alcohol sales. 

Singleton said that on occasion he has had to push additional food sales to account for an imbalance in the ratio, but that it’s often the case that the final sales breakdown is not known until it’s too late to resolve.

Singleton is, however, usually given a grace period to get things right, he said.

“There’s other things I’d rather deal with,” Singleton added. “They couldn’t care less about our convenience …”

Mayor Danny Dunagan said he is unsure just how great the desire is to change the sales ratio, but that he’s open to reviewing it because “what’s good for their business is good for the citizens of Gainesville …”

“I’d be open to maybe modifying it a little,” perhaps a 60-40 split for sales in favor of alcohol, Dunagan added. “But I will not support taking it off period … The last thing we want or need is straight-out bars.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Bruner, Hamrick and others on the City Council.

Councilman Sam Couvillon said he’s always willing to consider a change, but affirmed his belief that residents would ultimately fight the prospect of open bars in the city.

“I’m not a prude, but at the same time, I don’t really care to have just a bona fide full-on bar,” he added. “I think the community would push back against that.”

 

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