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Council approves 'hybrid' ordinance
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DANIEL ROBINSON KNOWS exactly what he wants to do.

The owner of a River Street bar, Robinson told the Savannah City Council June 19 that he wants to transition into a full-service restaurant.

“We’ve been in operation less than 6 months,” he said. “Right now, we are a bar. I elected to be a bar at this time because I didn’t want anyone under 21 until we had a kitchen and were ready to become a full-service establishment.”

Shortly after Robinson spoke, the council approved ordinances setting regulations and fees for full-service restaurants that transition into bars after food service has ended for the day.

While Robinson is proposing to do the exact opposite by transitioning a bar into a restaurant, the rules will apply to his business in the same way.

The ordinances become effective in 60 days. Getting them to the table was an often contentious proposition, with numerous public hearings and informational meetings.

“Our whole purpose was that any establishment that seeks to sell alcohol and not have food either needs to be a bar or have this special transitional license,” City Manager Michael Brown said. “It would require a number of steps by an establishment to ensure that there are no underage patrons.”

The proposed ordinances were posted online, Brown said. “We had a number of public meetings,” he said. “We listened to representatives of the industry, as well as individual business owners. The council’s suggestions have been incorporated.”

A vote on the ordinances was postponed from June 5 so that Mayor Otis Johnson could be present for the vote.

Under the new liqour ordinance, restaurants with proper zoning and sufficient parking will be permitted to transition into bars. The ordinances are aimed at restaurants that offer music after regular hours when food service has ended.

Anyone under 21 will be required to leave the restaurant at a certain time. Owners/managers are asked to set this time and submit a detailed operating plan on how the transition will work.

An ordinance amending the city’s revenue ordinance also was approved so that regulatory fees can be collected from participating businesses. That ordinance is not meant to raise money for the city, but instead to recoup costs of added inspections that will be required.

This fee for the transitional license is $250 per year, but a $125 prorated fee will apply for the remainder of 2008. This cost is in addition to the regular alcohol license fee.

Under the ordinance, restaurants must designate and post a consistent time that people under 21 must leave. The time will appear on the restaurant’s license, and must be followed each and every day of the year and may not be changed until the license is renewed.

“We had an added suggestion that the posted time that transitions should occur could not be later than midnight,” Brown said. “We think that’s reasonable.

“We recommended a $250 annual fee,” he said. “If we see any problems whatsoever, we’ll add an inspection fee of $125. If they violate the ordinance in any way, we’ll immediately call for revocation of the license.”

All servers and bartenders will be required to receive training to earn certification. This training must be completed by Dec. 30.

Mike Vaquer of the Georgia Restaurant Association said members now support the ordinances.

“We want to thank you for the efforts of your staff for working through what turned out be a rather difficult ordinance to deal with,” he told the council.

“We think a very good compromise has been reached,” Vaquer says.“That gives us the certainty and clarity we wanted. We agree with the language changes and accept the concept of added training.”

Alderman Tony Thomas said the ordinance was not intended to hurt businesses.

“It’s very flexible when you look at other tourist cities,” he said. “Other cities force a time and everyone must do it by that time. We’re giving you the choice.”

Vaquer said the owners/operators are pleased that they were given the maximum amount of flexibility.

Alderman Van Johnson said most restaurants won’t be affected by the new ordinances. “I want to be clear the primary issue was to keep individuals under 21 out of establishments that act as bars or clubs,” he said.

“It might be that only 10 restaurants might choose to do this,” Johnson said. “With the majority of restaurants, this affects them zero. We’re not kicking families out, we’re not saying if someone is here with their son or daughter, they have to get out,” he said.

“If they’re going to change their appearance to that of a bar or club, they have to tell the people up front, ‘This is posted, this is the time you need to be gone from here.’ Hopefully through a very intensive public education campaign, we will make sure people know the majority of restaurants in the community will not be affected.”

Even restaurants that provide live entertainment won’t be affected -- as long as they keep serving food.

“The whole point of the ordinance is to say there must be food service when underage patrons are in the establishment,” Brown said.

Alderman Jeff Felser said the ordinance should be placed in the entire context of which it arose.

“The only ones affected are those who are opting to change from a full-service restaurant into a bar,” he says. “The whole point has been our attempt to allow our businesses to be extra business friendly.”

Vaquer said copies of the ordinances will be distributed to the association’s membership. “This is something that is voluntary,” he said. “It’s not mandatory. They choose to opt in. This only effects what we’ve started calling a ‘hybrid.’”

Mayor Otis Johnson said the ordinance doesn’t include any mention of musicians or entertainment.

“There is no way this will impair bars that have music, restaurants that have music, hybrids that have music,” he said.

“The trigger here is whether food service is going on. They have to have food service if there are underage patrons. It does not impact music and entertainment.”