Traverse City News and Events

City To Consider Moratorium On Liquor Licenses

By Beth Milligan | June 15, 2019

Traverse City commissioners Monday will vote on a proposed moratorium that would ban any new liquor licenses from being issued in the city until concerns regarding alcohol-related issues are resolved.

The moratorium is proposed by Commissioners Roger Putman and Brian McGillivary and suggests stopping issuing any new liquor licenses for either six months or until several actions to address alcohol problems are undertaken by commissioners. Those actions include having the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) make a recommendation to the commission about capping the number of liquor licenses downtown, asking the planning commission to consider requiring that any alcohol-serving establishments go through a special land use permit (SLUP) process, having city staff recommend a plan to “address the public safety issues currently presented by the high concentration of bars on Union Street,” and developing an overall plan to address “over-serving, drunken behavior, and other problems associated with the city’s high number of alcohol-serving establishments.”

McGillivary tells The Ticker he’s recommending a moratorium to give city commissioners time to thoroughly address alcohol-related challenges before more booze-serving establishments come online. “We need to get a handle on this before we keep going forward,” he says. “It’s been an ongoing concern in the city for awhile. It seems to be getting worse and more serious every year. If we get a reputation as a booze town, that’s going to be hard to shake and I think will bite the tourism hand that feeds us. I think we just need to take a breath.”

The moratorium would not apply to the transfer of liquor licenses between owners, only new liquor license applications. Those would primarily affect new businesses in downtown Traverse City and The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, the two locations where redevelopment licenses – the only type of new licenses currently available in Traverse City – can be issued.  While McGillivary acknowledges a moratorium could potentially impact new businesses that may be in the planning stages or intending to open in the near future, he points out the ban is intended to be temporary.

“I think when people think moratorium, it’ll last forever,” he says. “That’s not what I’m proposing. It’s six months or until we address those issues. If we address them by September, it’s a three-month moratorium.”

Other city leaders agree alcohol-related issues need to be addressed, but don’t support issuing a moratorium. Commissioner Amy Shamroe says that when city commissioners recently heard concerns from some residents about drunken behavior, they were directed at existing bars along Union Street. “Stopping issuing new liquor licenses doesn’t end that problem,” Shamroe. “At the heart of the conversation is our existing locations, and arbitrarily saying no to anything new won’t fix that.”

Shamroe says that requiring alcohol establishments to obtain a SLUP – a more intensive and protracted city permitting process – would be unfairly “laborious “ to business owners who already have to go through lengthy city and state approval processes to obtain liquor licenses. She notes the city and DDA agreed earlier this month to jointly fund a community police officer dedicated to downtown Traverse City, and wants to see how that officer might address some of the behavioral issues that have raised concerns. Shamroe also wants to involve the DDA more in conversations about liquor licenses.

“I think you’d have to be blind not to see that there are certain issues…we’ve become a mecca for bachelor and bachelorette parties and weekends away, some of which is good and some of which has led to problems,” Shamroe says. “I’d welcome the DDA to be involved in the discussion, so that if we do limit the number of bars downtown, it’s a joint effort and not just the seven of us making knee-jerk reactions that won’t alleviate the actual problems.”

DDA CEO Jean Derenzy says she’d also welcome a joint review process – one that uses a data-driven approach to make decisions about downtown liquor licenses. Restaurants and bars help contribute to the vitality of a downtown, Derenzy says, but it’s also important the overall mix of businesses not become disproportionately focused on alcohol.

“The number one issue is having a healthy balance between retail and liquor (establishments),” she says. “I would not want to see any retail spaces be flipped to liquor licenses, because we need all the retail stores we have and when one flips, it’s hard to flip it back.” Derenzy believes some of the problems arising on Union Street are because there’s not “enough diversity” in the types of businesses dotting that small block of downtown. She wants to look at downtown issues holistically and is open to solutions that could include capping the total number of liquor licenses, limiting new licenses to certain areas, or banning the conversion of retail space to alcohol establishments.

“You have to be careful, because you don’t want to stagnate entrepreneurism or ideas that can help downtown thrive,” Derenzy says. “But you also need that balance. There’s a spattering of issues I’ve seen downtown, but they aren’t all just about alcohol. I need more information and data so we can approach this the right way as a community.”

City staff also recommend holding off on a moratorium or taking any other immediate action as they work to prepare recommendations for city commissioners related to alcohol issues. In a memo to commissioners – released after Putman and McGillivary had already put forth the proposed moratorium – staff noted they were working with liquor license holders to address violations and increase enforcement, while avoiding being unfairly punitive to business owners. Staff said they planned to work with business owners and other community members “in the coming months to curate a series of recommendations and initiatives to support a community of alcohol conscientiousness.” The group plans to bring recommendations to city commissioners related to alcohol issues by the end of the year, according to the memo.

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