Lawrence city commissioners approved a resolution Tuesday that will allow some downtown establishments to derive up to 90% of their sales from liquor for the next couple of years.
The resolution stems from a request from John Brown’s Underground designed to skirt a long-standing city rule that requires many downtown establishments with liquor licenses to derive no more than 45% of their sales from liquor — the rest must come from food. The ordinance was originally passed to prevent downtown from becoming a problematic bar district. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, many smaller downtown businesses “struggled and continue to struggle to comply with the 45% cap,” according to the commission agenda item.
Commissioners during their Nov. 15 meeting requested that city staff bring back a broader way to help businesses that are in the same bind.
On Tuesday, the commission heard from several people in support of suspending enforcement; many specifically mentioned John Brown’s Underground. But the resolution suspends enforcement of the sales quota for downtown businesses that are 3,000 square feet or smaller and possess valid city and state liquor licenses — it’s not specific to any particular establishment.
Commissioner Courtney Shipley asked to clarify whether the resolution will apply only to existing businesses. Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin said theoretically, a new establishment could open and meet the criteria. He said initially, the city was only looking at existing businesses, but that raised concerns about equal protection under the law.
“If (a new business) met the requirements of what we’re doing here, they would be entitled to the suspension, and we would apply it equally across the board,” Larkin said.
Commissioners also discussed how long they wanted the suspension to last.
A committee is currently reviewing the city’s entire land development code — a review process Mayor Lisa Larsen hopes to see completed by the end of 2023. As part of the work, that committee is expected to revise the current ordinance governing downtown alcohol sales.
The resolution as proposed in the agenda packet would have halted enforcement of the alcohol sales ordinance through Dec. 31, 2025, or when the updated land development code is passed — whichever came sooner. In an amended motion, Commissioner Brad Finkeldei moved to approve the resolution to be in force through Dec. 31, 2024 or when the updated code is passed.
The commission approved the resolution 5-0.