By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
Ace’s Range owners April Brimmer Kunz and her son, JB Kunz, want to be add alcohol sales to help bolster business at their indoor golf simulator in Cheyenne.
Being allowed to serve liquor would be another contributing asset for their operation, not the driving focus of it, they said.
“This came about because of a business concept, an entrepreneurial business concept,” Brimmer Kunz, the former president of the Wyoming State Senate, said before the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee earlier this month. “This is truly an economical development concept to allow entrepreneurs to participate in the liquor laws by having a limited license.”
The Wyoming Legislature is considering changes that would dramatically alter the liquor license system in Wyoming by establishing a new category of licenses for businesses like Ace’s. The tavern and entertainment liquor license would allow businesses that derive at least 60% of their revenue from food, entertainment or a combination of them to access a liquor license that is more specific to their services.
Over the past decade, many experience-type businesses like ax throwing ranges, arcades and escape rooms have popped up around Wyoming.
Shortages And Shortcomings
To serve alcohol at their establishment, which is set to open soon, Ace’s had no other option but to compete with 10 other applicants for a single retail liquor license available in Cheyenne, Brimmer Kunz said.
That type of license “didn’t really fit our need but was the only option that we had,” he said.
Ace’s was not chosen for the license.
Wyoming has several types of liquor licenses. Full retail licenses are those most often sought by bars that may also want to sell liquor on a retail basis.
The state also has bar and grill licenses granted to businesses that serve food from a restaurant and alcohol from an attached bar or lounge, and a restaurant license granted to restaurants that wish to serve alcohol without an attached bar or lounge.
Retail liquor licenses are awarded based on a community’s population, a formula that hasn’t changed since 1935.
Fifteen of the 16 Wyoming cities with a population larger than 5,000 people are maxed out for their allowed retail liquor licenses.
Twenty-one of the 26 cities with populations between 1,000 and 4,999 are sold out, as are 30 of the 58 towns with populations less than 1,000 people.
Competition for retail liquor licenses has become fierce in some Wyoming communities.
“Young entrepreneurs are going to have a difficult time procuring licenses at the current rate,” JB Kunz said.
Brimmer Kunz said the proposed new tavern and entertainment liquor license would provide new opportunities for small businesses to succeed and possibly keep a younger demographic from leaving the state.
JB Kunz said he doesn’t frequent older bars and taverns in Cheyenne because they’ve never updated any features to make themselves more entertaining.
“I’d prefer to go somewhere and do something that’s not revolved around just purely drinking,” he said, adding he finds his younger generation more interested in doing activities while imbibing rather than solely sedentary consumption. “Wyoming is set up as a free economy and we really need to take a look at the small businesses trying to start up.”
More Leeway For Communities
The Wyoming Association of Municipalities and town of Jackson Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen support giving towns and counties flexibility to determine on a case-by-case basis the types of entertainment that would qualify for a tavern and entertainment liquor license, and how many.
Jorgensen said the entertainment license could allow businesses like movie theaters and bowling alleys that may have been on the edge of going out of business be more competitive.
Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association, a consortium mostly representing traditional bars, liquor stores and some restaurants, opposes this flexibility and most aspects of the draft legislation.
“We are going to be entertained by the amount of loopholes businesses exploit to get a liquor license,” Moser said.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, is also opposed to the “free-for-all” approach, saying, “I think uniformity is important.”
Cheyenne City Council member Richard Johnson says that’s an advantage of the bill.
“I am the one that looks for loopholes,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. If I can find a way to get a business into my community through a loophole under the definitions that you’ve defined, that’s exactly what I’m going to do to bring them forth to my community.”
Brimmer Kunz said she would approve of guardrails on the word “entertainment.”
State Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, said although he supports giving local governments control of the new licenses, some parameters need to be put in place.
“There’s got to be some consistency statewide with this so that Gillette is not doing something that is totally different than it looks necessarily in Cheyenne,” he said.
Sweeney mentioned a Casper ax throwing facility that wants to sell alcohol directly to customers rather than have them bring their own.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chair of the Corporations Committee, expressed concern that the bill allows businesses to potentially skirt having to get a bar and grill liquor license by classifying themselves as a tavern and adding a few games.
The Corporations Committee also recently passed a bill increasing retail liquor license renewal fees by $200-$2,200 more per year. If passed into law, the legislation would retire the current restaurant liquor license by 2033.
Moser said he sees the fee hikes as a tax increase.
Of the 92 liquor licenses in Cheyenne, there are 39 full retail licenses. Moser said costs for this latter demographic and 740 businesses statewide will go up by 60%. He said most of the businesses that will have to pay the fee increase are “very, very small.”
“Increasing something that much, on so many businesses (that) are quite small and family-run, isn’t something I think is fair,” he said.
Bob McLaurin of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities disagreed, seeing it as a reimbursement to law enforcement for their services. He mentioned how 75% of the town of Jackson’s police calls are related to alcohol, while Casper sits at 40%.
“That is part of the cost of issuing a license,” he said.
The $1,500 maximum fee on new liquor licenses has been in place since 1935.
“We keep saying we support our elected officials, and we apparently don’t support counties and cities to determine prices based on their areas to their own constituents,” Zwonitzer said. “I don’t know exactly what we’re afraid of that we think the local licensing authorities are going to charge everyone the maximum and inhibit business in their communities.
“Just another instance of our local officials wanting more power and authority and we don’t want to give it to them.”