BURLINGTON — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has agreed to reconsider state limits on liquor licenses, after hearing from Burlington city officials who are frustrated at being dried up.
State law limits liquor licenses based on a city’s population, with one license for on-site liquor consumption per 500 people in that municipality.
The City of Burlington has just issued its 25th and final available license to Buzzed Wine Bar, a new establishment soon to open at 549 N. Pine St. in downtown.
This means that if a restaurant or other new business plans to open in Burlington, the city does not have a liquor license available for the foreseeable future and could risk losing economic development.
Burlington City Council Speaker Jon Schultz appealed to Vos for help during a town hall meeting Vos held at the Veterans Terrace event center on Wednesday.
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Calling the situation “super frustrating,” Schultz said Burlington officials object to the state’s “artificial limit” restricting the city’s ability to determine how many local businesses should be allowed to serve the beer, wine and hard liquor.
“Let’s govern our own city,” Schultz told the Speaker of the Assembly. “We don’t need state babysitting.”
Vos, who grew up in Burlington and now resides in Rochester, responded that he was open to considering easing state restrictions.
“I would definitely be open to looking at that,” he told Schultz.
However, any changes to the law would likely face opposition from the Wisconsin Tavern League, the powerful statewide lobby group of 5,000 Wisconsin bar owners and others.
Chris Marsicano, former president of the Tavern League, said the group opposes relaxing liquor license limits because it would dilute the value of existing licenses.
With limits now in place, a tavern owner selling their business can get a much higher price — often the fulfillment of a lifetime of building a tavern into something worth buying, Marsicano said. .
In parts of Florida, liquor licenses sell for $1 million or more, he said.
“It gives value to our business,” he said. “And we’re not about to give that up.”
Vos noted that he supported a change a few years ago allowing cities, towns, or cities to buy additional liquor licenses from neighboring municipalities, if those neighbors aren’t using all of their licenses.
Overhauling the entire liquor license limit system is not likely, Vos told Schultz. But, he added, “I definitely think you could play around the edges.”
The issue arose in Burlington in March as the city considered awarding its final license to Buzzed Wine Bar.
Melissa Smith, a relocated entrepreneur from the Chicago area, plans to sell primarily wine by the glass, though she may also offer beer, hard cider, and a few liquor choices.
City Council approved its license on March 1, but not without reservations about dropping the city’s last Class B license for on-site alcohol consumption – the type of license favored by restaurants, country clubs and other major attractions.
As council prepared to vote on March 1, Alderman Tom Preusker said the decision on the wine bar license shouldn’t be so decisive.
Preusker said everyone can “thank the Tavern League” for the state licensing restrictions. He suggested reaching out to state lawmakers about reforming the system.
“It’s too bad we even have to have this conversation and make it a really big deal,” he said. “It’s because of state law.”
After purchasing additional licenses from nearby Burlington and the City of Spring Prairie, the City of Burlington now has 25 businesses licensed to consume beer, wine and hard liquor on-site.
The Buzzed Wine Bar license cost the city $12,500, a cost the city passed on to Smith.
Another license will be authorized as the town’s population increases to include another 500 people. City staff told aldermen the benchmark for another license is only 85 new residents, as the population nears 11,000.
Schultz told his colleagues at the March 1 meeting that awarding the final license to Buzzed Wine Bar would make them temporarily unable to accommodate any new restaurants or other businesses that come along.
“It’s really a shame,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that the state has these limits.”
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