Elaine Sheridan D’Arcy is concerned that her alcohol licensing fees could increase just six months into opening her Irish pub and restaurant downtown.
“I just want a chance to survive downtown,” said D’Arcy, who owns O’Donovans at the corner of 10th and Broad streets. “I’m just upset that they’re not helping small business. Just give us an opportunity.”
A slew of changes are proposed to the city’s alcohol ordinance. Among them, license holders face an annual increase of about 10 percent, a new late penalty fee for failing to renew on time and a new option for restaurant owners to switch to operating as a bar after 9 p.m.
If approved by city commissioners next month, the updated ordinance also would follow Savannah, Ga., in allowing Augusta bars to sell alcohol on Sunday during the St. Patrick’s Day holiday, defined as March 16-18.
Other changes include allowing liquor stores to open on Thanksgiving Day, although packaged alcohol sales wouldn’t be allowed on Christmas Day, and requiring restaurants with an alcohol license to close at the same time as bars or clubs, at 3 a.m. Monday-Friday and 2:30 a.m. Saturday.
The proposed fee schedule shows that for beer and wine licenses, bar and restaurant owners will go from paying $625-$665 to $690-$735, depending on the occupancy capacity of the establishment. Liquor licensing would be bumped up from $3,115-$3,330 to $3,430-$3,665, according to a copy of the proposed ordinance.
Licenses for retail beer and wine sales would increase from $665 to $735, while a retail liquor license would rise from $3,330 to $3,665.
“We were thinking while we’re making these (other) changes, let’s look at the fees so that’s what brought it about,” said Augusta Planning and Development Deputy Director Rob Sherman, who noted that the city last raised licensing fees in 2011. “We looked at some of the larger cities and we found that if we went up a little bit, it would be comparable to them. We’ll be at the upper-end, but not the most expensive.”
Added to the ordinance, license holders who do not file a renewal application before the last business day of the year will face a late fee of at least $300, or 20 percent of their annual license fee, whichever amount is greater. If the application hasn’t been filed with the Planning and Development Department by Jan. 31, the operator will need to receive a new license.
Also new is a “hybrid” restaurant concept derived from a similar model in Savannah. The designation gives restaurateurs a choice of eliminating food sales after 9 p.m. and instead operating as a bar or club.
After paying a $500 annual regulatory fee, the owner could charge a cover fee to patrons for live entertainment and contests and could increase their capacity by clearing out tables and chairs. No one under age 21 would be allowed in the “hybrid” restaurant after 9 p.m., and a sign must be posted at the entrance.
“I think it’s just another way for the county to get more money, and the only one it’s going to hurt is the local average Joe business guy,” said Jody Dickson, a consultant for Andrew’s Place, an upscale bar and grill off Furys Ferry Road. “The corporations – it ain’t going to bother their bottom lines one little bit.”
Andrew’s Place opens for dinner and often features live bands. Dickson is worried the restaurant will be forced into becoming a “hybrid” and paying the extra fee for any large acts booked at the Augusta spot.
“I’d have to leave that option open to be able to charge one in case I brought in a bigger name in entertainment,” he said, adding that the owners already pay about $6,000 annually for the restaurant’s alcohol licenses in addition to a $120 dance hall permit.
“All that adds up,” he said of the proposed fee increases. “It’s hard out there already.”
D’Arcy said she can’t imagine a situation that would prompt her to change how she operates O’Donovans.
“That’s not an advantage to any of us, because downtown is a foodie district not a big drinking district,” D’Arcy said. “Most people are coming down here with the intention of eating.”
Sherman said restaurant owners who opt for the “hybrid” destination would be required to register, which would help the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office better monitor after-hour establishments. He expects only a few local restaurants would adopt the designation.
Sherman said two staffers from the Sheriff’s Office researched how the concept worked in Savannah and discovered it’s been well-received there since the city council passed it in 2008.
Blake Benthall, who manages Molly MacPherson’s Scottish Pub & Grill in downtown Savannah, said most people in the city didn’t even notice a difference when the policy was implemented.
“Pretty much anything you can find on River Street is basically going to be a hybrid restaurant,” he said.
But D’Arcy pointed out that the type of business that Savannah attracts is much different than what Augusta does.
“Savannah is a destination,” she said. “We’re just not a destination yet.”
Although three public hearings were held in late July, Sherman said he hasn’t received feedback from local license holders.
The proposed ordinance changes are scheduled to go to Augusta’s Public Services Committee on Aug. 25 and to city commissioners on Sept. 2. If approved, the changes would become effective Dec. 1.
For Jeremy LaFontaine, the owner of Joe’s Underground Cafe, his concern is that raising the city’s alcohol license fees will deter other businesses from opening in Augusta.
“I definitely would hate to see it increase,” said LaFontaine. “Eventually, you’re just going to push people out of the market.”