Alcohol serving issue debated by city leaders

During the years, East Lansing’s downtown has become punctuated by empty storefronts, forgotten establishments and “For Sale” signs taped in the windows of former restaurants and businesses.

And often, bars and restaurants want to be first in line to fill those voids. Two pending alcohol-inclusive businesses are once again showing conflict between student demands and leaders’ visions for the city.

To regulate the types of restaurants that might wind up filling these gaps, the Downtown Development Authority, or DDA, has criteria incoming restaurants must follow to correlate with their vision for the downtown, as well as to get a liquor license from them.
At last Tuesday’s council meeting, the hopeful new bar, Black Cat Bistro, which would move in next door to Menna’s Joint on Albert Avenue, showed council a site plan but was confronted with council’s concerns about the business’ intentions down the road — primarily with their plans to stay open until 2 a.m., having entertainment and their 110-person occupancy.

The issue extends to other parts of the city as well. Before granting Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery’s application for a Michigan Liquor Control Commission small distillery license last week, council members showed concern for the establishment’s possibility to over serve patrons, and with the types of spirits they would be serving. The distillery would be located at 2000 Merritt Road, near Saginaw Highway.

By looking at these details, the DDA and council hope to find upscale dining for the downtown area as opposed to more bars,
Community and Economic Development Administrator Lori Mullins said.

“We want the downtown to be vibrant at all hours,” Mullins said. “We want to have places that have great lunch and dinner options as well as the nightlife type of options. We’re trying to create an environment in the downtown that’s very balanced.”

Since bars with primarily student clientele are beginning to dominate the downtown landscape, council members said they agreed with the DDA’s goals to add diversity to the downtown.

“There’s a lot of wishful thinking here, but the only tangible thing I see here is (110) seats and alcohol served until 2 a.m.,” Councilmember Kevin Beard said at the last city council meeting. “We don’t need just another 2 a.m. operation in town … It’s difficult to see this as anything more.”

Mechanical engineering junior Alex Benson said he sees upscale restaurants as an asset to the community to add variety to what already exists.

“Bars are more important, but we have a lot of them,” Benson said. “Of the two, bars are more important, but diversity is too, so you have options.”

Although the idea of fine dining in the downtown area is well-intentioned, What Up Dawg?, 317 M.A.C. Ave., owner Seth Tompkins said he struggles to see the practicality in a college town where student patrons make up much of the business.

“If there’s a market (for fine dining), I just don’t see it,” Tompkins said. “If (a majority of) the market is people who have next to no income, who do they expect to come to these fine-dining establishments? Are there enough of these people to actually warrant a restaurant like that — or two or three or four?”

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