After months of negotiations and multiple workshops by the Alcohol Control Board, the Statesboro City Council has finally taken action on proposed changes to the city’s alcohol ordinance by passing a first reading of four changes to the ordinance, including the abolishment of the ACB.
In an unannounced move at Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilman Will Britt motioned for sweeping changes to the alcohol ordinances during other business. With Councilman Joe Brannen out sick and Councilman Tommy Blitch recording the sole nay vote, the four motions passed by a 3 to 1 vote. The biggest move will create three separate categories for alcohol license holders – restaurants, tavern and bars.
Restaurants would operate as always and would be required to generate at least 50 percent of their gross receipts from food sales. Tavern would be required to generate at least 35 percent of their sales from food, but would restrict patronage to 18-and-up after 10 p.m. Bars would be 21-and-over at all times but would have no food percentage requirement.
Britt said the reason he brought up these changes to the city council was that September’s ACB work session came up with proposals that seemed to go against the grain of the wishes of local business owners.
“It seemed to me that the direction that the ACB was trying to go was clearly not the direction I had any intention of going,” Britt said. “That’s not the way I’ve asked for things to be passed.”
Britt said these changes have been talked about for years and “instead of running through the bureaucracy I ran them through the legislators.”
During September’s ACB work session where four councilmen were present, the ACB recommended changing the ordinance to offer two types of alcohol serving licenses – restaurants and bars. In those proposals, any establishment wishing to operate as a restaurant would have seen their food percentage requirement upped to 60 percent, meaning at least 60 percent of a restaurant’s gross sales would have to come from food sales. Also in their recommendations, any establishment that did not meet the 60 percent threshold would be classified as a bar and be restricted to patrons over 21 — at all times.
The ACB’s proposed changes were met by extremely negative reactions from local business owners, especially those who would have been affected by the increase in food percentage requirements. The general consensus of these owners was that it would hurt their business.
Nathan Queen, Retrievers manager, said it would hurt business so much he would consider not longer accepting Eagle Express, the GSU student meal card. Dingus Magees owner, Stephanie Neal, and French Quarter owner, Brent Hulsey, also said a 21-and-over mandate would severely affect their lunch crowd. Gnat’s Landing owner, Al Chapman, said the idea was ridiculous and would likely put him out of business.
In addition to the three categories created by the new rules, any establishment with an alcohol license would be required to have a kitchen and offer at least five menu items while drinks were being served.
Queen said his establishment already serves a limited menu whenever alcohol is being served and feels it’s a good business practice to have food available while people are drinking. He said it’s simply an issue of responsibility.
David Poor, manager of Dos Primos, said he generally likes the changes. He said requiring a kitchen staff member to stay late would increase costs, which could be offset by additional food sales.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to give restaurants the option to be 21-and–up or be a tavern, that way they don’t have to worry as much about 50/50,” Poor said. “(Requiring food) is a good idea, especially when someone has been drinking on an empty stomach. If they have a couple beers and want to drive home, if they’re eating something it will help them absorb some alcohol and make sure they get home safe.”
Another big move calls for elimination of the ACB. Britt said staff is already making recommendations to the ACB, which in turn make recommendations to the council for action. He said dissolving the ACB wouldn’t change all the background checks being performed by staff but it would remove one of the layers of government and streamline the process.
Councilman Gary Lewis said there are very few alcohol control boards in municipalities throughout the state, so it’s time for a change in Statesboro.
“(The council) should be the ones to make decisions for the people in the city,” Lewis said. “I think we should be the one to determine the rules and what happens when someone violates the rules. After all, we’re elected by the people, for the people and of the people.”
Mayor Bill Hatcher was most disappointed by how the changes were brought up to council.
“I think the timing was very inappropriate,” Hatcher said. “As I tried to say to those who were bent on passing it, we’d had no public input, no notice that is was coming and I think it’s good government for people to know what’s coming and to be able to have a voice in it or express their opinions on it.”
Hatcher said he believes Statesboro is known throughout the state as a healthy, Main Street and community city. In his view, he doesn’t want to become an Athens where there are numerous bars right on main street and right outside the gates of the university.
“That’s not Statesboro, Georgia for me. I don’t think we’re served well to move in that direction,” Hatcher said. “I think people look up to us across this state as having a Main Street community, which does the right thing and has a good solid image. I’m concerned that this would possibly change that.”
A couple administrative changes are relatively minor in comparison. The first would change Saturday’s closing time for alcohol-serving establishments to 1 a.m., which would be consistent with the closing times Monday through Friday. According to Britt, consistency is the main point.
The other change is primarily administrative in nature. Currently, license holder must report their alcohol excise taxes once a month. With the change, they would only have to file those reports quarterly along with their consumption report (commonly known as the 50/50 report).
While this adjustment would reduce the actual number of individual pieces of paper filed with the city, Deputy City Clerk Lyn Dedge said her workload would only be minimally affected. She said she would still need to key in the monthly figures for use on city accounting reports.
At the heart of the matter is a future move toward Sunday alcohol sales. Britt said he talked to at least nine business owners about the effects of the alcohol ordinance on their businesses.
“They want Sunday sales, this economy needs it,” Britt said. He also said a couple of the business owners complained about losing “tons of money” because of the early closing time on Saturday, especially considering the late starts of the GSU football games.
Queen said he hope that the city will just set the rules and leave license holders alone.
“They’ve changed this alcohol ordinance so much it doesn’t really matter. I just wish they’d pick something and stick with it,” Queen said. “Set it the way we want to set it, as a city, then leave it alone so that it stops messing with everybody.”
Phil Boyum can be reached at (912) 489-9454.