Friday, September 4, 2015

Soglin's "crusade" against liquor downtown hits already established businesses

Mayor aims to change direction of State Street, one liquor license hearing at a time

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin recently vetoed the liquor license for a young restaurant on State Street in an apparent attempt to stave off booze-heavy businesses in the area in favor of more retail opportunities for the downtown destination.

The thing is, Soglin’s veto doesn’t do anything to create retail. Whether the restaurant in question serves liquor, beer or nothing at all doesn’t matter – the restaurant will remain in place. Retail won’t grow because of Soglin’s decision, and his move will just hurt an already-established restaurant on State Street.

Mad City Frites applied for a liquor license with the city of Madison earlier this month. The State Street restaurant serves up “Belgian-style French fries, made in Madison.” And beer with French fries, we all know, is a wonderful combination.

Nineteen city council members agreed, with only one member voicing dissent. But the debate was highly spirited, with Soglin’s banter against the restaurant reminding some of a lecture more than a discussion, according to some reports.

In his veto message, Soglin expressed concerns over the growing alcohol presence downtown.

“We are experiencing creep – a gradual erosion of a long established philosophy about our downtown is destroyed in small incremental steps,” Soglin said.

Those concerns may be valid – there certainly isn’t a shortage of places to get alcohol on State Street – but Soglin oversteps his bounds when he tries to make Mad City Frites an example of his policy wishes.

If Soglin wants to grow retail on State Street, he should do so through grants and other incentives that encourage businesses to set up shop there. Punishing already existing businesses is not the way to grow retail. In fact, it sends just the opposite message: if you thwart the mayor’s wishes, you’re going to get burned.

Maybe I’m a bit biased here – Mad City Frites is a Millennial-owned business, and Soglin sadly plays the part of a past generation grouch all-too well. Were he to have a more open discussion about the matter at hand (rather than using a single license review to try and make his point), members of the council may be more open to his reasoning.

There are several valid points to Soglin’s arguments, and they deserve to have a proper hearing. It’s the approach to his crusade that is problematic more than the crusade itself. The end doesn’t always justify the means, and if Soglin thinks he can transform State Street one license review at a time, he’s going to have a hard time winning over people to his vision.

In all likelihood, the city council will probably override his veto. It only takes two-thirds of the council to do so, and with 19-1 voting in favor of Mad City Frites’ plans to sell beer the math is clearly in their favor.

Still, it’d be nice to read a story on in the future that talks about how cordial an argument between Soglin and the council had been, rather than reading about how the mayor threw a hissy fit over a single business just trying to grow its success.

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