Originally created 01/14/02

Athens bar owners rally against license limit plan



ATHENS, Ga. - Roadhouse nightclub owner Tim Cantrell has heard the complaint that Athens' reputation for a lively downtown shopping district is on the rocks because of too many bars, and he's not buying it.

Led by Mr. Cantrell, some bars are banding together to try to squelch efforts to cap the number of alcohol licenses in the college town, arguing that they pay a large share of the district's sales taxes and have restored life to the once-faltering downtown.

"We're not afraid of the competition as much as we're afraid of these people with their good intentions," Mr. Cantrell said. "They take money with one hand and slap us with the other."

Shopkeepers say having so many bars hurts retail stores because the bars' patrons visit at night, when clothing, gift and record stores are closed. That means less daytime foot traffic on the street. The small number of stores also discourages some shoppers from choosing downtown over a nearby mall, they contend.

Members of the Athens Downtown Council, a business group, have asked commissioners to issue no new alcohol licenses for six months.

Their most recent complaint is that a downtown Gap that closed is soon to be replaced by Bourbon Street, described as a frozen-drink bar.

Athens officials are still calculating the balance of bars, restaurants and stores downtown, but so far it appears to be a close race, with about 70 downtown establishments holding alcohol licenses compared with about 70 retailers, not including offices, hair salons and other establishments outside the realm of entertainment and shopping.

While some bars don't mind the idea of a license cap, because it would limit competition for customers, other bars are resisting the idea of a pouring-license moratorium as another government intrusion.

Mr. Cantrell and others argue that their businesses provide jobs and upkeep for downtown buildings, along with rent, sales and property tax dollars. And Mr. Cantrell is still chafing over an increase last year in license fees, and a lingering discussion about street odor.

"We're trying to keep downtown pretty (much) like they want," said Xander Hannon, the owner of Georgia Bar, which won a county award for recycling business of the year. The building housing the bar was a warehouse before Mr. Hannon's father purchased the property in the 1980s.

"It's a huge investment," Mr. Hannon said. "We're all paying huge sales taxes."

"We can't let it go back to Leave It to Beaver days," Mr. Cantrell said of downtown. A drop in the number of bars means "the property taxes are going to skyrocket. It's counterproductive."

As the license moratorium issue simmers, authorities are hoping to keep amity between bar owners and store owners, fostered in recent years by the business council and a two-year-old hospitality resource panel that examines concerns of bars and restaurants, said Art Jackson, the director of the Downtown Development Authority.

The herd of bars could be thinned somewhat under a move by Athens-Clarke County commissioners in November to punish businesses that serve alcohol to minors - not just the employees who pour and teen-agers who drink it. Under the measure approved by a 10-0 vote, businesses found in violation will get probation or education courses or, as a last resort, have their licenses revoked.

No one, Mr. Jackson said, wants the corruption that has been seen in some Northeastern U.S. towns, where he said license caps have sometimes led to a trade in pouring licenses purchased solely for black-market resale.

"I think we're all wanting the same thing," Mr. Jackson said. "There's a great concern for the balance, but that doesn't mean anyone's anti-retail or anti-bar."

Excluding Charleston, S.C., "we have more retail than anyone on the East Coast," per capita, he said. "We need to protect what gives us that viable daytime life. And our reputation internationally is the night life."