Downtown Dining District in the works thanks to city’s rivers

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – There have been a lot of plans made for the city’s rivers during the last few years, and now that development could equal more liquor licenses for downtown restaurants.
City leaders said the opportunity could mean major growth for both the new and existing establishments.

Licenses are usually hard to obtain because they’re based on population, so business owners have to find someone willing to sell their existing license. Typically, applying for a liquor license takes around 90 days and comes with lots of paperwork, as well as a costly price tag.

“It ranges anywhere from $40,000 to upwards of $75-80,000 that we’ve seen recently,” Development Finance Administrator for the City of Fort Wayne Sharon Feasel said.

Restaurants would still have to go through the same application. However, instead of paying the state the one-time fee for a liquor license, the restaurant would pay annual dues of $2,500 to the Downtown Improvement District.

“That’s going to be utilized to help market all of the restaurants in downtown Fort Wayne,” Downtown Improvement District President Bill Brown said.

The Indiana Tobacco and Alcohol Commission has dozens of types liquor licenses. This one requires restaurants to be within so many feet of the river.

“There is a tier 1 and a tier 2, 1500 feet and 3000 feet from the river, and they’ve created a boundary for this district to exist in,” Brown said.

Neither the city nor the Downtown Improvement District, or DID, can issue the licenses. The restaurant would first have to apply for their approval. Once City Council and the DID endorse the restaurant, the owner can then apply through the state and then pay the DID.  Within three years, restaurants will also have to prove that at least 50 percent of their sales are from non-alcoholic items.

“That’s a pretty big bar to get above. So, it won’t just be places to just drink. They’re trying to continue to grow the dining experience,” Brown said.

Unlike traditional liquor licenses that can be sold and used again, this one would disappear if a restaurant goes out of business.

“It’s not an asset. It’s not something that can be kept by the owner of the license currently,” Brown said.

Restaurants that already have liquor licenses are also backing the idea, like Pint and Slice on Calhoun Street. It’s a very busy downtown spot these days, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“If you look back almost ten years ago when we opened this place, we were the only place open after 4:00 p.m. and we were the only restaurant open on Saturdays and Sundays. So, we basically had a monopoly on food and beverage in downtown Fort Wayne in those hours and business wasn’t good. Business was terrible. Those were trying times for us,” Pint and Slice Owner Andrew Thomas said.

Now, nearly a decade later, Thomas said more choices means more business for everyone.

“It is a much more vibrant place, and we have way more customers than we had when we were the only place. That’s why we support it because we want more restaurants downtown,” Thomas said.

Thomas also knows first-hand how tedious and expensive it is to obtain a liquor license in the traditional process.

“It’s an arduous process. It’s kind of an antiquated law if you ask me as a business owner. There’s a 90 day waiting period. There’s a lot of filing that takes place. It’s very cumbersome, and it is expensive,” Thomas said.

He believes the district gives entrepreneurs who are just starting out a chance to thrive.

“A start up restaurant takes a lot of capitol. They’re not easy to fund and so having this incentive where you can get the liquor license for a fee versus buying it out will hopefully entice some people to take a chance,” Thomas said. “Restaurants are hard to get funded. So, what we can do with this particular statute or this ordinance is instead of spending upwards of $65 or $70,000 on a liquor license, you have more capitol to put in your restaurant. So, you can a nicer restaurant and a nicer façade. You can have better kitchen equipment. You can invest in technology. You can invest in advertising. You can invest in human capitol versus just buying a license.”

Thomas said the idea for a downtown dining district has been in the works for nearly a decade, but the momentum riverfront development has gained recently is giving it the final push it needs to become a reality.

“We originally brought this philosophy up eight years ago. I testified for it, but I felt that there was a lot of businesses that didn’t feel the ordinance had enough protection for existing businesses. The new ordinance has some things that are going to help the whole restaurant community. So, I think that’s why council is really behind it because it addresses new business and it also protects some of the existing businesses that have been supportive of downtown for many, many years,” Thomas said. “It’s the simple theory that the higher the tide, the more boats that float, and that’s so true when it comes to downtown dining.”

The proposal for the district is up for a final vote at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting.  If council approves the district, Brown said the city could see could see new restaurants within the next four to six months. 

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