City Leveling The Field

March 18, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — When city leaders put their draft version of a liquor license policy together, they had businesses like the Big O’ Café in mind.

And the Big O’ could save big D’s, as in dollars, and be able to compete with the big C’s, as in chains, if the city makes the policy official.

The Big O’ moved to the lower level of the Aldrich Building at 80 Ottawa Ave. NW early last year after a 2005 blaze destroyed its location on Bridge Street. Big O’ owners Bernie and Gina Kersten and Ozzie Martinez brought their popular Bridge Street menu to their new home, where business has been good. But one thing is missing.

DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler said the new policy could fill that void. He explained that when convention delegates go to the Big O’ they expect to get pizza and a beer. Well, they get the pizza, but not the beer, because the café doesn’t have a liquor license and the price of an escrowed one is too costly for the small business.

“This is a way of leveling the playing field,” said Fowler.

Fowler was referring to a policy that would make a new statewide liquor license solely available to businesses in development districts, such as a DDA or a Downtown Improvement District, or a Tax Increment Financing Authority such as the Monroe North TIFA.

The policy would put those smaller entities on a more competitive level with the larger chain restaurants that can afford the going price for a license.

“Licenses go from $75,000 to $100,000 on the market,” said DDA member Joseph Tomaselli.

The district liquor license sells for $20,000 and it does most of the same things the more expensive one does, except it isn’t transferable. And the requirements to get one aren’t all that stiff.

Applicants have to be in the dining, entertainment or recreational business; be open to the public; seat at least 50 people; prove that they tried to purchase an escrowed license or show that one wasn’t available or affordable; and document that at least $75,000 has been spent on the building’s restoration over the past five years or will be spent over the next five years.

“We could be flooded with a thousand applicants, but there are some buildings that it won’t apply to,” said Fowler.

Although the state Liquor Control Commission will have the final say on all applications, the city has set guidelines as to which businesses should be given the highest priority. Topping the list is an existing restaurant — like the Big O’ Café — and next is a new restaurant that locates in a mixed-use development. Third is a new restaurant, entertainment or recreation business that fills a void in a district.

The DDA recommended last week that the City Commission approve the policy, an action that could come as early as next week. Businesses would apply for a license with the city clerk and city commissioners would decide which ones go to the LCC for approval from the state. The DDA will make recommendations to commissioners on applications within its district.

“You can help determine whether this is the type of development you want to see in the area,” said Fowler to the panel.

DDA member Cathy Mueller suggested that an applicant within the board’s district be required to serve actual food and not just nachos floating in a cheddar cheese sauce, a change that would have made it difficult for a nightclub, tavern or coffee shop to apply for a license.

But DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn didn’t think amending the policy was necessary because the city’s top two priorities for the license are restaurants.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Dunn of the new licenses being granted. “But this could be a good thing for the downtown area.”    

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