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Published: Monday, 3/28/2005

Cities find liquor permits no cure; many hold off on state incentive

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Brixx Ice Co. is a popular watering hole in Dayton, strategically located across from the city's baseball stadium, Fifth Third Field.

Part owner Jeff Goldman said the bar might not have opened if not for the low-cost liquor permit the owners got through the city's community entertainment district for $2,344. The alternative was buying a liquor permit from another location, then transferring it to their place - a move that could have cost $25,000 or more.

"They've made it economically more feasible." Mr. Goldman said.

But success is a relative term.

The Brixx is full of revelers on game nights during the four and-a-half-month Dragons baseball season. Not so the rest of the time.

"The growth hasn't been there. I think there's unfortunately a negative stigma in downtown Dayton, especially in the evening," he said.

Which may explain why, with 30 permits available in Dayton's two community entertainment districts since 2000, only 13 have been issued.

Seven years after the Ohio General Assembly approved the community entertainment district concept to make more liquor licenses available, Ohio's struggling downtowns are making only limited use of it.

Two of Ohio's largest cities - Cincinnati and Cleveland - don't have any community entertainment districts. Akron has a large community entertainment district - but no permits issued.

A Blade survey of the 13 community entertainment districts in place statewide since the law was passed in 1998 shows that it's not a magic formula for downtown revitalization.

Of 164 available liquor licenses in the districts, 46 have been issued so far, and 20 applications are on file. Only one of the 13 districts has reached the maximum number of liquor permits.

"Just by creating them doesn't mean there's going to be a plethora of drinking and other night spots gravitating to the downtowns," said State Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island). "You need the market first."

When enacted, the law was limited to cities of 100,000 or more. Mr. Redfern sponsored an amendment approved in 2003 to allow the city of Sandusky to establish a district. The law was also changed then to add townships of at least 40,000 residents, and cities with 20,000 residents where at least $50 million is being invested in entertainment options.

The law is an option for cities that have reached the quota of available liquor permits.

A community entertainment district, which must be approved by the city council or township trustees, is allowed one new liquor license for every five acres in a community entertainment district, up to a maximum of 15 licenses.

Brixx's owners acquired a liquor license at a cut-rate price through Dayton's community entertainment district. Business, the two people at lunch above notwithstanding, has been disappointing. Brixx's owners acquired a liquor license at a cut-rate price through Dayton's community entertainment district. Business, the two people at lunch above notwithstanding, has been disappointing.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Phil Craig, executive director of the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, said the community entertainment district law was enacted to help support plans for Columbus's $150 million Nationwide Arena, completed in 2000.

"When you see how the Arena District in Columbus has blossomed into a little entertainment district you can see the value of it," said Mr. Craig. His organization did not support the original law, saying it "breached" the quota system. The lobbying group said restricting the number of available permits forces permit-holders to uphold quality in their establishments.

"On the other hand it's ended up being a limited-use vehicle," Mr. Craig said.

Toledo's 80-acre community entertainment district, which overlays much of the Warehouse District, has started off with a bang, with five applications quickly put on file with the Ohio Division of Liquor Control since it was enacted by Toledo City Council on Feb. 22.

Tony Packo's Cafe applied for one of the affordable permits for its planned restaurant at 7 South Superior St., across from Toledo's Fifth Third Field.

But just a couple weeks after council approved the entertainment district, Packo's announced it would put off its opening until the start of the 2006 baseball season.

The entertainment district was enacted with such speed that leaders of the Warehouse District complained they were taken by surprise.

"It was not a well-thought-out plan," said Kathleen Steingraber, executive director of the Toledo Warehouse District Association, which also manages the St. Clair Village development.

She's concerned about upsetting the Warehouse District's planned balance of residential, arts, and entertainment uses.

Still, Ms. Steingraber's organization has applied for two permits. Also applying for permits are MS Windfall Ltd., 519 Monroe St., and V/Gladieux Enterprises, the concession contractor at Fifth Third Field.

Ms. Steingraber said one of the two permits her organization seeks will be transferred to Downtown Latte, a coffee shop and restaurant in St. Clair Village at 44 South St. Clair.

Latte co-owner Pam Burns said she and co-owner Connie Dick could not have afforded a liquor license on the private market.

"For us I think the timing is great. It came along at a good time," Ms. Burns said. They plan to offer a "very limited" selection of wine, import beers, and liqueurs.

Dayton has two community entertainment districts on the books, totaling 315 acres.

Shelley Dickstein, a senior development specialist for the city of Dayton, said Dayton's downtown renaissance is driven not by national restaurant chains but by local entrepreneurs.

"And they are typically a little more cash poor," she said.

For them, the difference between a $2,344 permit and a $25,000 permit can decide whether to open.

Ironically, the most filled-up community entertainment district in Ohio is not an urban center on the rebound, but a newly created "city" - the Easton Town Center in Columbus.

The 470-acre commercial and retail area has all 15 available permits issued, and three applications waiting on file.

Another rapidly growing entertainment district is also a new lifestyle center - Crocker Park, in Westlake, a suburb of Cleveland.

Since its creation in 2004, three permits have been issued and three applications are in the works.

Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell said the city recently passed legislation to create a Theater District community entertainment district, but the district is not filed yet with the state.

In Youngstown, supporters believe the community entertainment district created in 2003 helped trigger investment.

"Things didn't happen for 20 years, and then from 2003 through now all of a sudden things are starting to happen," said Jeff Kurz, a lawyer and a founding member of the Youngstown Arts and Entertainment District Association.

But Mrs. Steingraber said the community entertainment district designation can accomplish only so much.

"The issue is the state of the economy in Ohio. It's very poor. That is the problem," Ms. Steingraber said.

Mr. Goldman likewise said the Brixx needs more than the one-time savings of a cheap liquor permit.

He said some hope is on the way in the form of Dayton's initiative to develop an ambitious 35-acre "tech city" near the ballfield.

"It'll bring a lot more people to the area," he said.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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