Kent rethinks liquor criteria

By Kyle McDonald | Staff Writer Published:

The city of Kent is taking a second look at the criteria it set last fall for new businesses seeking liquor licenses through a process known as TREX transfers.

Kent City Council set the bar high last September in response to changes in state law that allow surplus liquor licenses to be sold from one community to another with a blessing from local officials on the receiving end.

The policy set by council requires at least a $750,000 investment in a space with at least 4,000 square feet of dining room and assurance that alcohol would account for no more than 25 percent of total sales before a liquor license could be transferred to Kent through the TREX process, but also gave council the ability to grant variances if applicants came close to meeting those guidelines.

The rationale behind the guidelines was to allow alcohol-serving restaurants to be created through the new liquor license transfer process, and to prevent potential nuisance bars from sprouting up around town.

During council's committee meeting last week, Kent Economic Development Director Dan Smith told council that the city has received inquiries from about 10 interested parties and two applications, with another soon on the way, but none had met the criteria put in place.

"What if there's a quality, smaller entity that could come in to the downtown?" Smith asked council. "Should they be excluded?"

Gary Gardner, his cousin Chris Copley and friend Patrick Madonio hope to open Twisted Root, an upscale wine bar next to the Kent Stage in the former trophy shop space at East Main and DePeyster streets, but come nowhere close to meeting the current guidelines.

Gardner said the wine bar is geared toward adults looking to enjoy a glass of wine before a show at the Kent Stage or take Italian lessons while sampling Italian wine, and not specifically for students.

The entire floor space of the storefront totals about 750 square feet, food sales probably won't account for 75 percent of business and total expenses after its first year are projected to be about $250,000, Gardner said -- half a million dollars short of Kent's criteria. And although the space is tight, he believes Twisted Root could take on up to 12 employees.

"It'll be more than that space has ever generated in the 55 years that I've known it," he said.

Ron Burbick, the Acorn Alley I & II and Acorn Corner developer, has two applications out as well -- one for Belleria, an Italian restaurant set to open in about three weeks, and one for a wine and jazz club that will occupy the basement of Acorn Corner.

Although Burbick's projects meet the financial criteria and Belleria is likely to meet the required food sales, neither has the amount of floor space required.

During the committee meeting, at-large councilman Scott Flynn said the current guidelines also conflict with spaces that may be ready to receive a restaurant without much investment. The Buffalo Wild Wings location on Franklin Avenue will be vacant once the restaurant relocates to Acorn Corner, and another operator could swoop in and get another similar establishment running with little investment, he said.

A number of ideas for new criteria were put on the table by council members throughout an hour-long discussion during the committee meeting before voting to have the administration go back to the drawing board. The ideas included setting separate criteria for existing and new buildings, having a dollar-per-square-foot investment, requiring full business plans to be submitted and third-party verification of finances, and setting up protections to revert licenses to the city if a business fails or doesn't live up to its pitch.

Ward 3 Councilman Wayne Wilson said the administration should use some subjectivity when considering projects as well.

"There could be one project that wouldn't meet any of the criteria, but as it turns out, looks like a really good thing for the downtown area or the city in general," he said.

Ward 1 Councilman Garret Ferrara said if a project is turned away by the administration, the people behind it still have the ability to call members of council to seek a review.

Wilson said even though changes to the current criteria will likely be made, he doesn't feel that the bar was set too high initially.

"The trick about having the bar set where it's at is you can always lower it, but you can't raise it," he said.

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1127 or kmcdonald@recordpub.com

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