Baldwin In a town that's been dry for more than 70 years, a potential zoning change that would permit liquor by the drink has stirred up more than a jiggerful of controversy.
The Prairie Pioneer Dinner Train has operated out of Baldwin for three years, traveling on railroad owned by the Midland Railway Assn. Food, Glorious Food!, a Kansas City catering firm, leases a 1939 streamlined passenger train from Heritage Rail Co., of Kansas City, Mo., and serves dinner during two-hour rides to Ottawa and back.
Mel Bloss, president of Food, Glorious Food!, and marketing director and special events coordinator for Heritage Rail, said he was told in mid-May that his caterer's license allowed him to serve liquor by the drink on the train.
However, the Alcohol Beverage Control division of the Kansas Department of Revenue admitted later it misunderstood Bloss' intentions and derailed the business with news that it could not serve liquor on the train with only a caterer's license.
ROBERT ENGLER, ABC director, said a catering license permits the serving of alcohol at special events, but not at a regular business.
"At the time the license was issued, we thought it was just for a special event," he said. "With a caterer, the liquor is to be catered with the food at the same time, but only for special events. Since it's a continuing business, it can't be considered catered. We feel like this is not within the law."
Engler said the ABC will work with the city of Baldwin and Bloss to come up with a solution. "We didn't want to put them out of business," he said. And for now, Bloss has a temporary permit to serve liquor on the train until Sept. 1.
To comply with the liquor license requirements, Bloss had to incorporate his company in Kansas and apply for a drinking establishment license for the dinner train.
THE REMAINING obstacles are a zoning restriction and the city of Baldwin's longtime ban on liquor sales.
"The train operates in an industrial zone right now, and zoning is exclusionary,'' Rick Shain, Baldwin City Administrator, explained. "If it's not expicitly stated, then it's not allowed. The wording would have to be changed to allow a dinner train in the industrial zone.
"And then we'd have to incorporate something specific that allows liquor by the drink. The ordinance might say `restaurant trains' are allowed in an industrial zone, and since it's a restaurant, it could serve liquor," Shain said.
Members of the Baldwin Planning Commission have asked Jack Murphy, city attorney, to draft a letter explaining the city's legal options. They will review the letter and discuss the issue at the Aug. 13 meeting, then make a recommendation to the Baldwin City Council.
Zoning changes, however, are subject to a public hearing and several official publications, so the dilemma might not be resolved until September or October, Shain said.
ALTHOUGH Douglas County approved liquor by the drink in 1986, Baldwin has banned the sale of packaged liquor since the days of national Prohibition. Therefore, a public election would be required to sell packaged liquor in Baldwin. Only a zoning change would be needed to serve it in the city.
Bloss said revenue generated by the dinner train benefits both the city of Baldwin and the Midland Railway Assn., a group that works to preserve the historic railroad and depot. The organization receives $7 out of the $39.50 charge for each person that rides the dinner train, he said.
During the first year, when the charge was lower, the Prairie Pioneer Dinner Train served 1,000 guests and made a total of $37,000. In 1990, 2,500 people paid about $100,000 to dine on the train. The anticipated figures for this year are 4,000 passengers and a gross of $160,000.
BLOSS SAID increased marketing efforts and other factors could lead to $500,000 in business next year. He said that having alcoholic beverages available for purchase on the train has helped attract customers, who were forced to bring their own liquor in the past.
"We had lots of people who rode the train last year who didn't feel comfortable hauling liquor around in their car," he said. "One of the most commonly asked questions when people call about reservations is, `Do you serve liquor?' It's hard to attract people from Johnson County to drive an hour and spend $40 a plate for a meal and not be able to purchase liquor or a glass of wine."
Baldwin Mayor Loren Litteer said he could argue both sides of the issue. As a member of the Santa Fe Trail Historical Society, he oversees the depot gift shop, and he sees first-hand the extent to which money from the dinner train helps defray the railroad's operating costs. He understands that the ability to serve liquor provides an additional marketing advantage for dinner train operators.
"I KNOW it's important to them because many of the people who ride the train are from the Kansas City area, and they're used to getting liquor by the drink," he said.
However, he also expressed concern that the moral issues surrounding the sale of liquor could draw attention away from the historical societies and their goal of educating people about transportation history.
Litteer also maintained that the city actually doesn't glean a significant amount of money from the dinner train.
"As far as a direct economic impact, there's not much," he said. "Not much of the money comes back into the community. We get some money from sales tax, and people might buy a cold drink at the Kwik Shop on their way out of town, but that's about it."
PUBLIC sentiment on the issue of liquor in the city could be split right up the middle.
Douglas County Clerk Patty Jaimes said the town came close to approving liquor by the drink in 1986. A majority of residents of north Baldwin voted yes, while those in the southern part of the city said no. The issue went down in defeat by a small margin of votes.
"This is a whole new area," said Litteer of the dinner train dilemma. "I'm not sure what direction it'll take."