The voter-mandated divestment of the state liquor stores will have the Liquor Control Board tied up for months. That means a delay in action on Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposal to let cities set their own closing hours — i.e., to let Seattle let its bars stay open later, to avoid the perilous, rowdy rush out onto the streets at 2 a.m. And that means there’s time to figure out how to do it right.
So, here’s a suggestion: Don’t just give the bars the extra booze hours, and the additional income it will bring, for free. Charge for them. Institute a progressive schedule of license fees: the later you stay open, the more you pay. That could be a win-win-win-win.
It would bring a little more revenue to the city, which needs all the help it can get and has nearly maxed out the extortionate potential of parking meters. It could recover the additional costs of policing those later closings. It would be fair: You want more hours, you pay for them, just like parking. It would give a break to little neighborhood joints and bars serving an older clientele that close earlier. And by inducing some to not stay open the max, it would encourage staggered closings, so an even more sloshed 4 a.m. "push-out" doesn’t replace today's 2 a.m. version.
After he proposed extending the hours early last year, I asked McGinn if he was contemplating anything like this. He merely said, “We aren’t looking at it as a revenue measure.” They are now: In July, his administration argued, in a pitch to the Liquor Control Board, that extending hours for, say, 100 bars would bring them $26 million in new revenues and deliver nearly $2.8 million in additional sales and B&O taxes. Call it booze tourism.
The other day, I asked his spokesperson Aaron Pickus and the legal advisers working the scheme if they were considering it now, and whether there were any legal impediments to it. I received this response from Pickus: “We are looking at a variety of different ways that a proposal for extended hours would work. We’re just not at the point yet where we’re ready to comment on anything specific.”
City Councilmember Nick Licata isn’t afraid to comment. He says he hasn’t heard any talk of pegging license fees to varying closing times, and warns that these could be “difficult to implement” and “counterproductive,” if they led to floods of exiting patrons. (See above as to why they wouldn’t.) He added that the idea being considered was to avoid such floods by eliminating mandatory closings altogether letting bars stay open “24/7” (as in New Orleans.)
“I wouldn’t support opening the hours up throughout city,” Licata adds, noting that the city’s consultants recommend trying wide-open hours in selected neighborhoods first i.e. Belltown. But there’s a possible downside: “Do you just continue the noise forever? There’s no silver bullet that’s going to kill the werewolf at 2 a.m.”
But staggering the hours by making bars pay for them might come closer than just leaving it up to them to all decide to close at the same time. Of course, the idea probably wouldn’t be very popular with club owners and their loyal patrons, key McGinn constituencies. What would Dave Meinert think?