By Shereen Siewert
A debate has erupted on social media leading some readers to question whether some businesses are given priority over others when applying for one of Wausau’s 68 regular licenses.
The debate prompted Wausau Pilot and Review to check into the rules surrounding liquor licenses and how they are granted within the city.
The issue came to the forefront when readers pointed out that only one business was given the opportunity to apply for the liquor license made available when Crostini Bar abruptly closed its doors in August. That business, Daly’s, is expected to open in the former Crostini location in late October
But on Tuesday, five businesses were vying for the license surrendered by Mountain Lanes Family Fun Center: Mountain Lanes, under different ownership; Jenny’s Family Restaurant; Downtown Grocery; La Taqueria; and a restaurant planned for Third Avenue that is owned by Malarkey’s co-owner Tyler Vogt, according to city documents. La Taqueria received the committee’s recommendation, which will be first forwarded to the public health and safety committee and then to the full city council for final approval.
In response to public criticism, Alderman Pat Peckham wrote:
“In order to not screw up business deals between parties who already have a tentative sale or lease agreement, the city does not typically invite other applicants in to compete where there is an ongoing business in the process of an owner/operator change. If the owner of Joe’s Place wants to retire and Joe’s niece wants to take over the business, the city chooses not to pull the rug out from under Joe and the niece by putting the license up for grabs. If the niece passes basic muster with the city, she gets the inside track to retain the license granted to the establishment. That seems fair to me.
“Looking at the former Crostini establishment, the building owner had a pending deal with a proven operator. City staff chose not to open up applications for the license associated with that Third Street address. No scandal, no playing favorites,” wrote Peckham, who is a member of the liquor license subcommittee.
But the rules are more complex than that.
Council President Lisa Rasmusssen, who also sits on the liquor license subcommittee, said the city always posts available licenses when they are forcibly revoked from a premises.
“There is always a posting of the license and there is an ordinance that prohibits re licensing that premises address for a year to allow a cool down period,” Rasmussen said. This was the case when the city revoked licenses for IC Willys, Breakaway, Its Our Clubhouse and Paradox, for example.
Mountain Lanes was about five days from the revocation hearing process beginning under the abandonment ordinance when Kaileah Koehler, the registered liquor license holder for the facility, surrendered the license, Rasmussen said.
However, when a license is surrendered by the holder voluntarily, the license holder is asked by the clerk’s office whether there is a plan to continue the business or reopen with a similar business concept in the near future.
If that answer is yes, then they are asked about the length of time that operations will not be active. If that is longer than what is allowed under the abandonment ordinance, the license is posted for five days and the new owner would compete with other applicants to get the license.
When there is a clear path to continue operations at an existing location, the process is still vetted in the license review subcommittee. If the applicant does not get the recommendation, the application and the license is opened up for five days.
The Crostini’s/Daly’s case is unique, Rasmussen said, because the landlord took over the operation under power of attorney. Since the time between tenants was only a few weeks, Daly’s was permitted to apply with the voluntary surrender on behalf of the old license holder.
“The city was not asked by Crostini to hold the license for Daly’s,” Rasmussen said. “Their application and plan was satisfactory to the committee and the license was recommended for approval for them and was confirmed by council last night.”
Reserve licenses are still an option for the other four businesses, but those 11 licenses cost $10,000 each. The regular liquor license costs $600.