Traverse City News and Events

As Drinking Culture Data Emerges, City Leaders Struggle With Liquor License Requests

By Beth Milligan | July 17, 2021

Preliminary findings from a Healthier Drinking Culture study underway in Traverse City were presented to Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board members Friday, highlighting opportunities to minimize the city’s reputation as a “party town” through methods ranging from training and certifying tour operators to establishing a Responsible Hospitality Council to updating permit rules for liquor licenses, events, and pedicabs. City commissioners are looking to a final report for guidance as they struggle with how to respond to a steady influx of liquor license requests, including another such request on the commission agenda Monday.

Consultants Megan Motil of Parallel Solutions and Elise Crafts of Statecraft presented preliminary findings and next steps Friday in the Healthier Drinking Culture project, which is funded by a 2020 grant from the Northern Michigan Regional Entity (NMRE) and aims to create a strategic plan identifying “the current state of and desired vision for Traverse City’s drinking culture.” In addition to a March survey that generated 1,130 responses, the consultants conducted 74 one-on-one interviews between April and July with liquor license holders, downtown businesses, event and tour planners, and other stakeholders. They also held seven listening sessions with specialized groups including neighborhood residents, media, industry employees, and non-drinkers.

When asked to describe their ideal vision for Traverse City’s alcohol scene, survey and interview respondents repeatedly used words like “responsible,” “moderation,” “regulated,” “safe,” “respectful,” and “fun.” Having an availability of transportation options, removing social shame around both the choice to drink and not drink, normalizing a wide range of beverages at events, and highlighting physical and mental health and recreational opportunities that don’t feature alcohol were also cited as components of an ideal culture.

Respondents said that strengths of Traverse City’s existing scene include a “strong craft beverage culture” that is place-based and agriculture-forward, widespread TIPS and TAM alcohol training among local employees, businesses voluntarily closing by midnight, establishments pairing alcohol with food, a strong social scene, and close relationships between businesses that includes sharing resources and support. Challenges identified related to local drinking include litter and property damage at businesses (including vomit and urine), rowdy behavior, theft and fights, the ubiquitous presence of alcohol at community events, a lack of non-alcoholic options on local menus, limited transportation choices, and a culture of day drinking that includes tours or events where people start consuming booze early in the day and continue through the evening.

Motil said respondent feedback helped shape three key areas of focus that will likely be emphasized in the final report. Those focus areas and possible solutions that could fall under them include:

> Policies and Licensing: Updating the city’s zoning ordinance and permit processing to create clear criteria for the number, type, and location of liquor licenses, including on a block-by-block or neighborhood basis; updating permit criteria for pedicabs and events; investing in meaningful enforcement for businesses and individuals; reviewing local ordinances related to noise, smoking, and marijuana downtown to ensure they comply with the city’s ideal culture.

> Training and Education: Continuing TIPS and TAM training for employees; requiring tour operators to become trained and certified; creating customer-focused education and outreach; continuing law enforcement training in conflict de-escalation, including with those who are armed; providing small businesses with access to community resources like health and wellness services for employees and after-hours places to gather without alcohol.

> Experience Management: Promoting experiences and events that don’t include booze; highlighting Traverse City in promotional ads as a destination for recreation, fitness, families, arts/culture, and food; consider forming a Responsible Hospitality Council to “articulate a vision, reinforce best practices, and support voluntary implementation of practices by liquor license holders and other businesses”; adding lighting to dark alleys; increasing the presence of downtown police officers at hot spots after midnight and during events; installing more surveillance cameras in problem areas.

Some DDA board members expressed particular interest in getting a handle on liquor licenses in the city, including considering whether to cap or limit the overall number allowed or limiting how many can operate on certain blocks. “The city seems to hand them out like Halloween candy, and I’d like to see a change in that,” said DDA Board Member T. Michael Jackson. Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers agreed that figuring out liquor licenses was “the important part” of the study from a city commission perspective, acknowledging that restaurants typically need alcohol sales to make margins but that more booze downtown can equal more problems overall.

“I talk to a lot of people who don’t want to go downtown after nine o’clock anymore,” said Carruthers, adding that business owners were “tired of cleaning up the vomit” around their stores. Carruthers said that while “alcohol and food goes together,” the city doesn’t have a good policy in place outlining the criteria for what kind or how many liquor licenses the city is willing to support, including for restaurants. Multiple new eateries have received liquor licenses in recent months, including Bahia, Modern Bird, and Loco Boys Brewing Company – but those requests often generate extensive city commission debate and sometimes have only narrowly squeaked through. Another such request is on the city commission agenda Monday: Millie & Pepper Creperie at 120 South Union Street is seeking a redevelopment liquor license to “complement its existing food service with alcohol sales,” according to the company’s application. The creperie only operates during the day, with hours of Wednesday-Monday 9am-3pm.

While the final Healthier Drinking Culture strategic plan will likely touch on numerous opportunities for improvement, Motil said city commissioners could choose to elevate goals that are priority focus areas, such as liquor license regulations. The consultants plan to facilitate additional sessions with key stakeholders in August, then draft the strategic plan that month. The final strategic plan will head to city leaders for approval in September, according to the consultants’ timeline, with staff planning to seek a second round of grant funding from NMRE to help underwrite costs for implementing the new plan.

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