And is it fair to let new competitors play by different rules?
Will having lots of places to toss back a drink help downtown Fort Wayne thrive? Apparently so, or at least that seems to be the animating supposition behind a new plan approved by the Downtown Improvement District this week and to be taken up soon by the City Council.
Under the plan, bars and restaurants that are in the “Downtown Dining District” and meet certain other requirements (non-alcoholic items making up at least half the sales, for example) could get a permit without regard to the state’s population-based quotas. Instead of paying up to $175,000 for a “three-way” license to sell beer, wine and liquor, they could get one in exchange for an annual $2,500 contribution to a new downtown marketing fund.
There are two issues that need to be considered by City Council members studying the plan.
One is what effect encouraging more drinking will have on Fort Wayne – on public safety, on health, on emotional well-being and in a host of other areas.
The other is whether it is proper for a government to create new competition for existing businesses and let those competitors play by easier rules. There seems to be a basic unfairness about a city taking sides, in effect declaring a favorite.
On the latter point, recent history suggests existing businesses won’t suffer. As The News-Sentinel’s Kevin Leininger reported this week, such dining districts have grown in popularity in recent years. By last year they accounted for 137 liquor licenses in 25 Indiana cities, including Anderson, Elkhart, Evansville, Indianapolis, Lafayette, Richmond and South Bend. Reports from those cities show exiting businesses actually benefiting from the traffic created by the newcomers.
But that just strengthens the concerns about the other point, doesn’t it? If there are more places selling booze, and the old places do better, too, that means more people dining out and drinking more often, does it not? That’s a lot of drinking and driving.
We are not suggesting – heaven forbid! – that the council not approve this plan. That would be as unrealistic as suggesting we might have a Three Rivers Festival without beer as an experiment.
But let’s not just rush through this without thinking about what we’re doing and what the effects might be. That will give us a better chance of coping with those effects.
If the only goal is to get as many people downtown as possible, no matter how we get them and what they do when they get there, that’s a pretty poor vision and a pretty shabby plan.