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A Fine Line

Tom PattonThe Jacksonville Beach City Council this week delayed action on a measure to change alcohol sales laws in the community. In this case, there would be no real immediate change, but the long-term effects could have serious implications for the value of a business in Jacksonville Beach.

The short version of the proposed change is that new restaurants, or those that change hands, would be unable to sell alcohol after midnight, while bars would be able to continue until 2:00 am. A restaurant is defined as an establishment that derives at least 51% of its revenue from food sales, and there is a concern that some establishments are skirting that definition. Mayor Fland Sharp said the purpose of the new rules is to target those “RINO’s” … Restaurants In Name Only … that are really more bar than restaurant.

One of the issues cited for asking for the change has been an increase in “rowdy” activity outside some of these establishments. I’m sure you’ve read a police report or two that contained the legend “alcohol was involved.” It seems that that there are some patrons who will have a drink or two too many and engage in unsocial behavior. We’ve probably all seen it happen, and likely before midnight.

But I’m not sure that forcing the restaurants to stop serving at midnight prevents the problem, or just moves it someplace else where alcohol continues to be served until 2:00 am.

But the broader issue is how it affects business in Jacksonville Beach. Since the ordinance would grandfather in all existing restaurants, it really wouldn’t have any immediate impact on the problem. The establishments that are already seen as trouble spots would be able to continue on as if nothing had changed. But it would put new establishments, or any that are sold after the law had changed, at a competitive disadvantage. That would understandably make a business more difficult to sell, and would discourage potential entrepreneurs from opening a new restaurant in Jacksonville Beach. But if you want to open a bar … no problem.

That has the consequence of making restaurants currently in operation in Jacksonville Beach less valuable. Even if they don’t derive the majority of their revenue from alcohol sales, it is an important piece of the pie. It’s no secret that the profit margin on alcohol is a significant revenue stream for any restaurant that serves it. Think about it. You buy a glass of wine at a restaurant for sometimes what you’d pay for a bottle of the same wine buying it retail, and hard liquor carries an even higher percentage. It’s why a liquor license is sought after for restaurants, and one reason that they’re so expensive.
If some of that potential revenue is arbitrarily stripped away by law, it could make the business a less attractive investment. Particularly when the restaurant down the street, or at the other end of the strip mall, is grandfathered in and does not have to abide by the same rules.

Now, if I were opening a restaurant, which I have no intention of doing, I’d hope that people would want to come because of the superior food, great service, and welcoming atmosphere … not simply because I could serve alcohol after midnight. Though if patrons wanted to linger over a drink past that time, it certainly wouldn’t help if I were unable to do so. So in this instance, the Jacksonville Beach City Council has done the right thing in sending this legislation back to a workshop, recognizing it as overly broad. I’m not sure how the council intends to reign in the “RINOs”, because it will be difficult to police.

Jacksonville Beach has become a destination. Not so long ago, it was blighted, and largely vacant at night save for the vagrants. While no one wants it to become a Southbeach or Daytona, it is nice to have some nightlife and entertainment. The Jacksonville Beach City Council has something of a fine line to walk. On the one hand, they want to be welcoming to people as a beach community should be, and enjoy the tax revenues that come from the bars, restaurants, and hotels that have become a part of the downtown area. They want to businesses to feel welcome too, as that helps grow the tax base. On the other, they are mindful of the residents’ desire for a safe community. The two goals are not mutually exclusive, and it’s encouraging to know that the council is mindful of their responsibilities to both.

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