The new Seattle Nightlife and Music Association may have scored its first major victory. Proposed legislation that would have effectively prohibited all-ages shows statewide will likely be revised by the Washington State Liquor Control Board to allow clubs to accommodate underage patrons. Still unclear, however, is whether the liquor board will back down from its proposal to create a new license for nightclubs—a new layer of regulation that club owners say is unnecessary and redundant with a similar City of Seattle proposal.
The liquor control board's original proposal, part of a bill that would lift the existing limit on liquor licenses in the state, would have prohibited minors from entering any venue that served alcohol at any time—even if underage patrons were prohibited from entering the bar portion of the venue itself.
Liquor control board deputy administrative director Rick Garza says the all-ages ban was included in the bill because the board figured, "If you don't allow people under 21 to drink, why would you not restrict folks under 21" from entering places that make most of their money selling alcohol? However, Garza adds, a meeting last week with the SNMA and local nightlife business owners in West Seattle convinced him that "we need to figure out a way to address" the existence of all-ages clubs in Seattle. "The last thing we're trying to do with this proposal is limit the entertainment industry. This has to do with alcohol service; it doesn't have anything to do with shows." The bill, which has not yet been introduced, could still be amended before it appears in Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles's labor and commerce committee.
King County Council Member Dow Constantine, who organized the meeting, says the liquor board's original proposal was "trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. If you're trying to keep kids away from alcohol, live music performance venues are really far down on any reasonable person's target list... As someone who actually attends these shows, I think the system works pretty well." And even City Attorney Tom Carr, a frequent adversary of nightlife interests in Seattle, weighed in against the ban on all-ages shows, stating in a letter to the liquor board that he is "concerned that the new legislation could effectively eliminate musical shows available to persons under 21."
The idea of a club license itself remains controversial. Garza says the new license is necessary to distinguish restaurants from places that are primarily drinking establishments; currently, every bar in Washington State is technically a "restaurant," even if it makes most of its money from alcohol. But critics feel the legislation defines "nightclubs" far too broadly. Under the proposal, any place that operates primarily between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.; is open five days a week or less; charges a cover fee; has live entertainment; has a higher occupancy than the number of seats; or doesn't offer menus along with drinks would have to apply for a nightclub license. If the liquor board decided an area was already "adequately served" by clubs, it could deny the license. Restaurants, meanwhile, would only be required to get the same basic liquor license they always have.
The legislation would also add a redundant layer of regulation to an industry that is already heavily regulated under state and local law. Carr, who believes "we already have too many liquor licenses in this state," has not taken a position on the statewide license; however, he supports a separate city nightclub license that would place dozens of new restrictions on hundreds of bars and nightclubs throughout the city.