“If we don’t have new construction and new buildings in this city, we do not get to increase our operational tax levy at all.”
By Brandi Makuski
Stevens Point Council members voted this week to postpone voting on a new liquor license grant program after new questions arose about approval guidelines.
The City Council on Monday was expected to approve the program, which was designed by city staff to encourage new business growth by reimbursing the partial cost of the remaining four Class B reserve liquor licenses left in the city. Those licenses cost $10,000 a piece.
“The state sets that price for the reserve licenses, and that can maybe be a little intimidating for a new business,” said Comptroller-Treasurer Corey Ladick. “What this does is maybe remove that potential obstacle.”
Under the proposal, the city would reimburse up to $9,500 for new construction or upgrades to existing buildings, to help offset the cost of the license. Business owners would outline their plans in a written application at the clerk’s office, and upon Council approval, city staff would internally verify the construction and then release the grant funds.
But several sticking points remained for Council members. Some were concerned with a proposed guideline of offering preference towards businesses with at least 51 percent in non-alcoholic sales, saying it unfairly restricted new taverns from opening. Others said they worried the guidelines weren’t specific enough, and could allow a chain restaurant with ample finances and no local ties to use the program.
Alders also worried about rushing into the program, which was only proposed the week before.
The proposal also requires businesses to submit proof of food and alcohol sales within 12 months of opening. Alderman Tony Patton, who manages Grazies Italian Grill on the east side, questioned whether it was feasible to track or enforce the guideline of 51 percent non-alcoholic sales.
Alderman Jeremy Slowinski agreed.
“Once the [initial] grant is granted, if there’s no proof with an annual submission- which I think would be an absolute mess- I just have this fear that could be manipulated,” Slowsinki said, adding he would like to see more restaurants open, but didn’t feel the 51 percent rule was fair to new taverns.
“I don’t want to lose the opportunity for a great project. So as long as we can look at these individually, I’m leaning towards removing that 51 percent requirement.”
Moe, along with Ladick, told the Council just having the program in place would likely boost interest for new businesses inside the city, and highlight Stevens Point as having a business-friendly environment.
“The more restrictions you put on this, it actually works against the concept to draw businesses in,” Moe said. “The more hurdles we put in, it works against us.”
Ladick said the city’s proposal models a similar program in Plover, where new construction has increased from $3.5 million in 2014 to $14.1 million this year.
“Plover has a pretty simple, straight forward process,” he said. “We don’t want someone to see a very easy one page application in Plover, then three pages here in the city with all kinds of restrictions and guidelines. My recommendation would be the keep it simple.”
He also cautioned the Council- the majority of which was only just elected in April- to consider future financial needs of the city which largely depends on new construction.
“If we don’t have new construction and new buildings in this city, we do not get to increase our operational tax levy at all,” he said. “That’s the reality; that’s the position the state has put us in,” he said.
City Clerk John Moe said many surrounding municipalities offer some kind of reimbursement to help offset the cost of the $10,000 license. He said the number of regular liquor licenses available in the city- 55- was set by the state in 1997, but additional “reserve” licenses become available reflective of the city’s population growth. Those reserve licenses have been unused, he said, for “quite a while”.
Alderman Garret Ryan, whose 3rd District neighborhood abuts part of the downtown square, said he’d like the 51 percent rule to remain beacuse his constituents don’t want more bars in the area.
“I think more bars, at least in that area, is the last thing people want,” Ryan said. “We have cameras downtown by the bars for a reason; adding more to that is just going to add to the problem; there’s always trash, vandalism, broken glass, quality of life issues. So I would argue that 51 percent is appropriate.”
Mayor Mike Wiza said while the decision was entirely up to the Council, he supported the 51 percent rule.
“I thought it more important to encourage non-alcohol based businesses to allow opportunities, and incentivize opportunities for restaurants and entertainment outside of alcohol sales, and make it secondary,” Wiza told the Council. “But it’s very much in your court now.”
The Council will consider the program again at its July meeting.