Lawrence city commissioners looking to limit the number of new drinking establishments downtown will take a close look at a Pittsburg ordinance that turns police officers into auditors.
And commissioners want to close a legal loophole that allowed downtown's Paradise Cafe to convert from a restaurant to a bar late last year, in what turned out to be a failed experiment.
But such changes to Lawrence law will get a thorough discussion before commissioners act. They said Tuesday night they would schedule a special study session in February to discuss how those changes would affect downtown.
"I think we all know we have a good thing right now," Commissioner Boog Highberger said of downtown. "We want to keep it that way and make it better."
But some Lawrence residents on Tuesday warned commissioners that bars helped drive downtown business and culture.
"There are a lot of cities, thousands if not tens of thousands, that want what Lawrence wants right now: a vibrant and active downtown," said Phillip Bradley, director of public affairs for the Kansas Licensed Beverages Assn. and a former Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioner.
"There are lots of cities that are trying to introduce the businesses that you're talking about tonight," Bradley said. "Hospitality business bring people."
Tuesday's discussion came after weeks of growing concern among commissioners that existing laws don't do enough to limit the number of downtown bars.
In 1994, the commission passed an ordinance requiring new drinking establishment licensees downtown to make 55 percent of their income from food sales, an effort to limit the number of alcohol-only businesses.
Paradise Cafe, which had a drinking establishment license at the time, was "grandfathered" in as an exception to the ordinance, which was why the city allowed the conversion to a bar late last year.
Tuesday, commissioners said they wanted the law changed so that other downtown restaurants could not make the same move.
And they expressed interest in the drinking establishment ordinance in Pittsburg, home to Pittsburg State University. The law there, which aimed at reducing underage drinking, prohibits anyone under age 21 from entering bars; businesses with liquor licenses there must prove to police they make at least 70 percent of their income from food sales.
Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin said Pittsburg police officers had been trained to audit the sales receipts as a means of enforcing the law.
"It's not a burden," Olin said. "The burden is on the licensee to prove they meet the 70 percent requirement, not the city to prove they don't."
Also Tuesday, commissioners extended a probationary drinking establishment license three months for BrewHawk, 733 Mass. The business just exceeded 55 percent of its income from nonalcohol sales during its first three months in operation.
Owner Frank Tarantino protested the extra probation, calling it "anti-business." The law requires the 55 percent requirement to be met over the course of a year, he said, not just a few months.
"If the laws are going to change constantly in the middle of the game, you cannot continue to play the game," Tarantino said.
"I don't want to put unreasonable burdens for any business," he said. "But frankly, Mr. Tarantino, the name of your establishment suggests your highest priority isn't selling food."
The commission study session will be at 10 a.m. Feb. 18.