John Brown’s Underground, a speakeasy-inspired craft cocktail lounge in downtown Lawrence, has made a creative addition to the local bar scene since it opened in 2014. But a city code that was designed to limit liquor sales downtown is now threatening the business’s future.
This rule requires establishments with liquor licenses to derive no more than 45% of their sales from liquor. Passed in 1994, the rule allowed exemptions for 29 existing locations, including Louise’s and Harbour Lights. The code still exempts new bars that open in the same buildings as any of those original 29.
The code was passed to protect the integrity of downtown Lawrence and prevent it from becoming a bar district. But JBUG team members are leading the charge to rework its limitations with a variance they’ve proposed.
With an increasing number of empty buildings downtown due to the rise of e-commerce, cost of rent and other factors, city commissioners — including Bart Littlejohn and Brad Finkeldei — say they’re open to solutions to remove barriers for those who want to open businesses downtown and to make the area a more welcoming place for local entrepreneurs.
JBUG had maintained compliance with the rule in recent years by factoring in food sales from Wake the Dead, a brunch restaurant located directly above the bar. But the owner encountered health issues, and Wake the Dead closed its doors in 2021, leaving JBUG in a precarious position.
Now the bar’s team is hoping the community will show support for their proposal.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission approved the text amendment on a 6-2 vote on Oct. 26.
According to a list of future Lawrence City Commission agenda items published Thursday afternoon, the amendment could come before the commission on Nov. 15.
JBUG has temporarily extended its liquor license with the city, but the clock is ticking until it expires on Jan. 15.
Mayor Courtney Shipley, who was the only commissioner to vote against extending JBUG’s liquor license, did not respond to a request for an interview.
”I don’t expect other commissioners to join me on this, but the rules exist as they exist, and the rules are you have to sell a certain amount of food in order to maintain an establishment downtown,” Shipley said during the city commission’s July 19 meeting. “… Whether I like it or not, the purpose of it was to prevent the overproliferation of bars, and a business that primarily sells alcohol is a bar — regardless of how nice it is.”
Shipley said JBUG had previously been out of compliance. City Clerk Sherri Riedemann said that was accurate — in 2016, when JBUG was first up for renewal of its two-year liquor license, they were not in compliance, but the team worked with city staff and came into compliance within six months.
Riedemann said she expected that as other businesses’ liquor licenses come up for renewal, some will likely be in similar situations since the state began to allow to-go liquor sales amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dante Colombo, managing partner at JBUG, urges Lawrence residents to contact city commissioners with their thoughts.
Update, 8:45 a.m. Monday, Nov. 14: This item is on the Lawrence City Commission’s regular agenda for its Tuesday, Nov. 15 meeting. City staff is recommending that the commission approve the proposed text amendment.
The meeting will begin at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. Meetings are open to the public and livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel. People who wish to give public comment may do so in person or via Zoom. The city must receive any written public comment by noon the day of the meeting at firstname.lastname@example.org in order to include it in the commission’s agenda.
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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.