Spirited Debate: Municipalities find liquor licenses can be a boon or a bane

One of the city of Festus’ former names, Tanglefoot, purportedly poked good-natured fun at the glass workers who staggered back into dry Crystal City after enjoying libations in the town that sprung up outside its city limits in the 1870s.

Those boozy roots dogged Festus through the early 1990s, when about a dozen liquor establishments operated along a three-block stretch of Main Street and on two cross-streets within a block of Main. And by then, the once-dry Crystal City had one more just down the street.

“You’d have thought they were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with their shoelaces tied,” said Billie Huck, recalling the handful of inebriates who stumbled from the taverns down the street past the home where she and her husband, Duke, raised 10 children in the 1970s and ’80s. “That hill got really steep at 1 a.m.” Drunks vomited, urinated or collapsed in neighbors’ yards and typically left behind shattered beer bottles. Twice, Duke’s vehicle was sideswiped by drunks and twice more, disoriented strangers brazenly barged through the front door. And, one late night in 1977, a drunken driver crashed into the Hucks’ home, carving out a car-sized hole near the family dining room.

But the problems got even more sinister. “Festus was a rough town then,” said Festus Police Chief Tim Lewis. “Those [police] officers then came in ready for a fight. They literally faced physical fights every night because of what was going on in that little three-block area.”

Lewis was first on the scene of a fatal stabbing at the Next Exit tavern in the early-1990s. This murder prompted a crackdown on liquor all along Main Street, said Festus City Administrator Steve Stoll. Owners of unruly bars faced revocation of liquor licenses, and a ban on cruising left the street clear for officers to respond to incidents. In 1993 the City Council approved an ordinance that mandated a bar owner be a taxpayer, a legal voter and of good moral character. More importantly, this ordinance prevented new liquor licenses from being issued in that zone. Though there is no formal limitation on liquor licenses elsewhere in Festus, once a license expires or is revoked in the area on and around Main Street, it’s gone for good. To date, the number of license holders in that area is down to seven.

Festus then versus Festus now is beyond comparing apples and oranges, according to Lewis. “It’s more like apples and watermelons. It’s 1,000 percent better now than it was,” he said. “Tall grass and car stereos – that’s what we worry about now.”

In Ladue, new liquor licenses anywhere in the city are out of the question. A static number of licenses are up for grabs: seven general liquor licenses, such as those held by restaurants and other per-drink establishments; six country club licenses; and six packaged liquor licenses, said Mike Wooldridge, assistant to the mayor.

Truffles Restaurant is one of the few to snag a full liquor license, although the process wasn’t easy. When Louis Cella and his sister Harriet Marshall sought to take over the liquor license of a departing business to open the restaurant in 1999, Cella said other businesses protested, fearing another restaurant would oversaturate the local market. Still, he agrees with limitations on the number of liquor licenses.

“It has been, and will continue to be, very difficult to go beyond the limited number. Frankly, I think that’s positive. You don’t want a liquor license on every corner,” he said. “As soon as a town like Ladue expands the number of licenses, they will have applicants to take advantage of that.”

Wooldridge said that even without a mandated limit on liquor licenses, the largely residential nature of the city keeps things in check. “I think it’s self-limiting in that we have a limited amount of zoned commercial area.”

Roughly 45 to 50 taverns, restaurants, private clubs, churches and package liquor stores operate peacefully in Ferguson. De’Carlon Seewood, Ferguson’s assistant city manager, said that to his knowledge, his city has never considered a limitation on the number of liquor licenses it will issue.

“I think we’ve had good luck with our businesses because we do those background checks and other extra steps to make sure we have quality businesses coming into the city,” he said. “We do background checks not only on the applicants but the employees. And they do have to go before the council for approval; they have to answer to the council.”

Seewood believes the simple process of facing the City Council in person keeps most applicants on the up and up. In addition, the Ferguson Department of Planning and Development provides assistance for would-be business owners to gather valuable demographic and market research data. The city also puts them in touch with other resources such as the state liquor board and small-business assistance organizations that can help applicants develop a business plan and get business loans.

The city of St. Louis has found an ingenious method of liquor control that places approval power squarely in the hands of those most affected by it: the neighbors.

“There’s no set limit on licenses, there’s no magic number,” said Liquor Commissioner Bob Kraiberg. “The most important backbone of liquor control in St. Louis is the ‘neighborhood consent’ aspect.” An applicant must get approval from a simple majority of property owners, as well as approval from a majority of the combination of registered voters and licensed businesses within 350 feet for a 1:30 a.m. license – or within 500 feet for a 3 a.m. one.

“The neighborhood is the primary decision-maker,” Kraiberg said. “It’s not me or the mayor or the local alderman or whatever. If an applicant gets a liquor license, it’s because it was wanted in that neighborhood.”

Though the neighborhood consent rule applies citywide, each ward has the freedom to set other restrictions or grant other allowances. “Some are different than others. Some say no liquor unless it’s a restaurant. Some place restrictions on packaged liquor,” Kraiberg said. For example, Ward 20 only issues new liquor licenses to businesses if food accounts for at least 50 percent of their total sales. Another variation is Kraiberg’s own neighborhood of Soulard, which has approximately 26 liquor-vending establishments, most within proximity of residences.

“Some would say that’s too much; there are entire cities that don’t have that many,” he said. “But this is a neighborhood that’s very friendly to liquor establishments, and the residential and business communities mix very well. A lot of people don’t move to the city just to stay home.”

To that end, the 28th Ward has enacted an ordinance that allows an exception for resorts in a portion of the Central West End to remain open until 3 a.m., well beyond the 1:30 limit elsewhere in that area. (“Resort” is defined as a business that rents rooms for overnight stays.) To date, however, no resorts regularly exercise their right for a late close, said Dawn Winkler, executive director of the Central West End Association.

In parts of the 28th, 17th and 18th wards, the CWEA acts as eyes and ears for the city in identifying establishments that could be good for the local economy and neighborhood character. “The Planning and Development Committee works with businesses to make sure they fit with neighborhood goals. It has to be a good mix,” Winkler said, adding that 80 percent of the businesses in the Central West End are liquor license holders. “We want the shops, but there needs to be the nighttime venues, too. We want people to be here morning till night.”

The CWEA’s Cultural Committee reviews applications and may sometimes put hopefuls in touch with resources. “We have helped applicants get the [neighborhood consent] signature they need,” Winkler said.

There are approximately 950 active liquor licenses in the entire city, down from about 1,300 just 15 years ago, Kraiberg said. He credits the neighborhood consent rule with increasing the quality of alcohol-related businesses citywide by weeding out those who aren’t serious or who can’t make a compelling case to the neighborhood.

“A lot of applicants will say, ‘I’m glad I did it,’ because they get to know the neighbors, they build a rapport and a connection with the community. This [process] puts the onus on establishments to make their case to the people who would be most directly affected by their operation. That business owner has to sit down in the living rooms of his neighbors and explain to them face to face why he deserves to be there. Don’t prove it to me, prove it to them. I have no control – the neighbors do.”