Sandi Torkildson, owner of A Room of One's Own bookstore, worries that the tipping point in the bars-to-store ratio in downtown Madison could be precariously close.
"If you don't have enough retail, you're going to lose it all," she says. "Once you lose that retail, it's hard to get it back. It's good city planning to try to keep that balance."
Since 2007, the city has tried to keep that balance with its downtown alcohol density plan - or ALDO, as it's commonly called. The plan does not allow any new taverns (new restaurants are okay) in the downtown area. And it prevents any bar from increasing its capacity.
When a bar closes, another owner can open a bar in that location within two years. But if that doesn't happen by then, the license expires and the space can no longer be used as a bar. (The grace period was originally a year, but was expanded in 2010.)
The plan, which aims to reduce the density of bars in the downtown area, was approved on a trial basis, which is coming to an end July 5.
Madison's Central Business Improvement District and Mayor Paul Soglin would prefer to see the plan die. "I'm not a big fan of ALDO," Soglin says. "I don't think the evidence is conclusive that it works."
Soglin would prefer focusing on problem drinking, such as unsupervised house parties. He also fears the plan has an unwanted economic impact: "By restricting the number of licenses, it creates a market in those licenses."
However, the mayor has agreed not to oppose a two-year extension of the plan when it comes before Common Council on July 5. This will allow more data to be collected to see what effect the policy is having. And some tweaks are being made, to increase flexibility and allow more entertainment venues.
The alcohol density plan has not drastically shrunk the number of bars downtown in the past four years, according to Mark Woulf, the city's alcohol policy coordinator.
In October 2007, there were 145 licenses, of which 75 were restaurants and 43 were bars. This month, there are 158 licenses, of which 88 are restaurants and 38 are bars. (The remaining licenses are for liquor stores, grocers and special operations, like Fromagination, the cheese and wine shop on Capitol Square).
In other words, there are five fewer bars in downtown Madison. Three were bars that reopened as restaurants: the State Bar and Grill became Zander's Capitol Grill, Buck's is now Buckingham's Bar and Grill, and Café Montmartre became the Underground Kitchen. Two others have closed: the pool hall Cue-Nique and the Badger Tasting Room, which was only open on special occasions.
Mary Carbine, executive director of the downtown Business Improvement District, says the BID supports efforts to curb problem drinking. But she says the density plan fails to do this and actually prevents creative entertainment options from opening downtown.
Carbine says various developers have contemplated bringing attractions like dueling piano bars, table tennis and dinner-and-a-movie theaters to downtown, but couldn't make them work under the alcohol density plan.
"It's a cultural issue," Carbine says. "You are stifling music and other cultural expression in our downtown."
The city's Alcohol License Review Committee has heard such criticisms of ALDO and suggested amendments to make it less restrictive.
The biggest change is a new class of liquor license, allowing seven new businesses to operate as "entertainment venues." The venues would not be able to make more than 65% of their revenues through alcohol sales and would have to begin the "entertainment" two hours after opening. Also, capacity is limited to the number of seats.
Carbine says these restrictions stack the cards against success. "The focus on alcohol revenue percentage sales takes attention away from what really matters, which is how a business will be run," she says. "We have businesses now that have tavern licenses and offer entertainment, like the Comedy Club or the Frequency, and do not cause alcohol-related problems."
"We won't have another Frequency or Majestic" with the density plan, she predicts. "You couldn't open a Brink Lounge downtown."
Ald. Mike Verveer, who sits on the ALRC and represents downtown, says the "entire ALDO extension is a product of compromise." He says he plans to offer amendments to address business concerns.
Though he understands the criticisms, he says ALDO is important to promote a mix of bars and retail. "I'd hate for the State Street and Capitol Square to only have bars and restaurants," he says. "I don't want State Street to become Bourbon Street."
Carbine doesn't want that to happen either, but believes the ALRC has the power to prevent this from happening without the density plan.
"The ALRC already has the discretion to say, 'We don't want straight taverns in the downtown area,'" she says. Instead, the philosophy should be: "We want to consider licenses that have an entertainment component, without creating this box that you can't get out of."
Ald. Lisa Subeck, a new appointee to the ALRC, says the density plan has failed to curb problem drinking.
"ALDO set out to make a dent in the problem of binge drinking and vertical drinking, where people go into a bar simply to get drunk," she says. "I don't think ALDO really serves that purpose, and I think we run the risk of preventing new establishments that would really change the mix downtown."
Instead of giving the density plan another two years, Subeck would prefer that the city scrap it and take a tougher stand on problem bars.
But Torkildson says there's more at stake than public safety. Because bars can generate so much more income than a store, property owners tend to prefer them because they can charge higher rents, she says. This market pressure tends to push stores out of the downtown area and into suburbs.
Without the density plan, Torkildson fears a "race to the bottom."
"If there were too many bars, how else are they going to compete but offer cheaper and cheaper alcohol?" she says. "If there were 20 bookstores downtown, I'd have a hard time surviving."
She notes that she's also "pro-bar" and "wouldn't want to be in an area that didn't have them."
The trick is figuring out what's the right number. That debate will likely continue for at least another two years.