A glass half-full? 

New alcohol ordinance clarifies some issues while leaving others hanging

Next Thursday, June 19, Savannah’s City Council will likely vote (and likely pass) an amendment to its Alcohol Beverage Ordinance — otherwise known as Section 6-1223(e) of the Code of Ordinances.

If that occurs, it may just be the end of a rather tumultuous saga which began in 2006 when the City Manager’s office —under direction from Council— crafted a mildly controversial law designed to prevent underage persons from entering bars or nightclubs where alcohol was served.

As is the case in many cities and towns across the U.S.A., Savannah had, for some time, given bar and club owners the option of choosing whether or not to allow minors into their establishments — provided there was some sort of bona fide live entertainment on display, and under the stipulation that said businesses take full responsibility for making sure those designated patrons were not served, nor obtained alcohol while on the premises.

Unfortunately, while proponents of the measure applauded the City for taking strides to cut down on what was described as a serious problem with underage drinking in bars and clubs (despite a paucity of statistical evidence to back up that claim), the wording of that law ultimately proved not only confusing for local law enforcement, but mildly embarrassing for city leaders.

In an effort to make sure that those under 21 would not have their access (and thus, their families’ potential access) to legitimate restaurants which happened to also serve alcoholic beverages impeded, the City and Revenue Department were forced to come up with strict criteria for what legally constitutes a bar or club as opposed to a restaurant.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s not — especially in a vibrant, tourist-oriented town such as ours, where a wide variety of live entertainment and libations are part and parcel of all manner of dining experiences, from inexpensive dives to swanky, chic eateries. In drawing a distinct line between “restaurants” and “bars”, the City wound up leaving a few loopholes, and more than a few restaurants opted to take advantage of them by remaining open after their kitchens either closed or shifted to limited, late-night menus. They were still serving drinks, though, and sometimes featuring live music.

Although it took almost two years for anyone in City government to notice this (or merely care enough to press the issue), the fact that scores of restaurants had been operating in this same fashion for (in some cases) decades, coupled with the ordinance’s confusing verbiage and repeated “thumbs-ups” from local law enforcement, left many with the sincere belief they were operating within the letter of the law.

And so, as more public attention was focused on the ordinance in question, its actual intent and what many from all corners came to decry as its “selective enforcement”, local leaders united to speak with one voice. Essentially, what they said was, “While there may be some confusion over whether or not this kind of thing is in keeping with the letter of the law, it is definitely not in keeping with what we believed to be the spirit of the law.

And so, after months of hand-wringing, legal wrangling, closed-door meetings, bruised egos, public discourse, name calling, conspiracy theories, heated blogging and —at times— head-shaking disbelief by many in the local bar, restaurant, nightclub and music communities, it seems a compromise of sorts has finally been reached.

Initially, live music fans and professional musicians alike were incensed upon learning the first draft of this proposed amendment inextricably linked the act of presenting live entertainment in tandem with the availability of alcohol as some sort of red flag — a flag which would seemingly result in the banning of anyone under the age of 21 from attending any live concert events at bona fide restaurants (as opposed to clubs) which also sold alcohol.

Their position was that to deny access in that way would have an instant and deleterious effect on tourism, as well as negatively impact the cultural quality of life for both locals and visitors alike. Imagine, for example, a situation where an adult couple with a 20-year-old child is told they can enter a restaurant to have dinner and listen to a band or solo artist, but their daughter cannot.

Or imagine the same scenario, but just replace the parents with a group of above-age friends. This is a tourist town and a college town, and that just won’t fly.

Luckily, though, after no small amount of lobbying on the part of the Georgia Restaurant Association, and impassioned pleas from a handful of local musicians and music fans who were desperate not to have the broad spectrum of live entertainment stigmatized in any way, the draft which is set to be brought before Council next Thursday now bears no reference to live entertainment.

Nor does it outlaw advance ticket sales or the promotion and/or advertising of entertainment at bars, restaurants or their newest cousin: the Hybrid Bar/Restaurant — as had initially been floated by the City Manager’s office as key aspects of the proposed measure.

“A major change that came out of these meetings is that the subject of entertainment was totally taken out of the current draft,” explains Assistant City Manager for Management And Financial Services Chris Morrill.

“Most folks came to the conclusion that (entertainment) was not the problem.”

Mike Vaquer, a locally-based statewide lobbyist for the Georgia Restaurant Association —and a key participant in the negotiations over this proposed amendment— says that in many ways, removing the notion of entertainment from the equation helped move the discussions forward.

“Initially, entertainment was viewed as one type of catalyst,” he says. “But when we all started looking closer at the Ordinance, it seemed obvious the problem was not entertainment. The problem was facilities that were essentially converting to bars at a certain point in the evening.”

Under the proposed amendment, bona fide, sit-down, full-service restaurants (legally defined as those which make at least fifty-one percent of their gross annual revenue from food sales) can still allow those under 21 into their establishment even when alcohol is being served — as long as their kitchen is open and serving a full menu, and they do not allow minors into “bar areas” where alcohol is prominently displayed.

As has been the case in the past, dedicated bars and nightclubs may only allow those 21 and up into their establishments.

However, bona fide restaurants who wish to continue serving alcohol after their kitchen closes (or after they shift to a limited, late-night menu) may apply to do so as a Hybrid establishment — provided they ensure no one under 21 remains in the business after that transition is made.

Furthermore, they must pay additional regulatory fees to the City to help pay for increased scrutiny and inspections of their practices, and their employees must undergo standardized training and certification in various aspects of accurately carding patrons and dispensing alcohol legally and responsibly.

In exchange for these concessions, Hybrids will have the option of receiving two different Fire Code Occupancy Ratings — one when set up for seated, traditional restaurant service, and once with the venue reconfigured to hold larger crowds more geared to standing or dancing.

As long as these changes are clearly posted at the primary entrance to the business, and all relevant laws and regulations are strictly enforced, they may lawfully make the transition to a more “bar-like” environment, regardless of whether or not they offer live entertainment.

While this will no doubt please many in the local restaurant business who depend on late-night bar sales to pad their bottom line and carry them through lean times, there are some who feel this new Hybrid designation puts them at a distinct disadvantage.

These include so-called “white tablecloth” establishments that are designed for mature, adult crowds who often expect to be able to hang out after dinner, drinking and mingling, but in theory do not contribute to the sort of civic problems cited by the City as the impetus for these ordinances, i.e., loitering, litter, noise violations and unruly behavior.

“I think overall, most folks in the restaurant business saw that we listened to them and went a long way to address their concerns,” says Morrill. “There were two or three owners who had very specific questions that pertained to their operations and they were not happy with the final result.”

Vaquer agrees that the language in this amendment needs some final tweaking (which he and others are racing to address before next Thursday’s proposed vote).

“While we don’t necessarily agree every restaurant that converts to a bar should be forced to fit the full litany of requirements, we can live with it,” he says, adding, “I’m actually about to walk into a meeting right now about changing the tone and language of that original 2006 ordinance to get rid of some of its quirks.”

In the end, Morrill notes the City’s only goal in all of this was to keep minors out of places with a “bar atmosphere”.

“We’ve been trying to do this without disrupting anyone’s business. But the truth is that creating this Hybrid category will take more staff and resources to enforce.”

Still, despite the circuitous and at times confrontational tone this debate has taken over the course of the past few months, Vaquer is resolutely hopeful.

“I think you can let folks know the future of live entertainment in Savannah is going to be very bright. This will not in any way decrease facilities’ capability to serve as live music venues. It just makes the rules a lot clearer.”

One local restaurateur who was an outspoken opponent of this new amendment says she is pleasantly surprised with its (seemingly) final wording.

“I’m happy that the City was so responsive to its citizens, and I’m happy that this ordinance seems much more logical than the one initially proposed.,” says Kristin Russell, owner of The Sentient Bean Coffeehouse.

That Forsyth Park eatery has become a hub of sorts for certain aspects of the live entertainment community. Interestingly enough, The Sentient Bean does not serve alcohol, and as such, is not directly affected by either the 2006 ordinance or this forthcoming amendment. However, that was of little matter to Russell.

In the first public meeting on this topic, she strongly and eloquently questioned City Manager Michael Brown on both the proposed amendment’s initial focus on live entertainment, as well as the need for such an ordinance in the first place.

In spite of the fact that her protestations seemingly made a great impact on the final wording of this latest draft, she is adamant that the entire notion of the Hybrid Bar/Restaurant is simply unnecessary.

“I must admit, I still think it’s an overly bureaucratic answer to what is simply a problem of enforcement,” espouses Russell.

“I mean, these are just more laws designed to be aimed at people who are already breaking the law! (laughs) If minors are drinking in any establishment at any time, it’s already illegal — no matter what category the establishment falls under. So, this is a reactive approach, rather than a proactive one.”

Like to learn more about this controversial topic? Read the complete transcripts of our interviews with Mr. Morrill and Mr. Vaquer here.

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Jim Reed

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