City of Madison

Former City of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Blog

A Higher Bar for Bars

June 15, 2009 12:32 PM

Recently, the Madison City Council seriously considered not renewing a license to serve alcohol. Actually, they considered not renewing three licenses.

It's amazing when you think about it. There are about 400 liquor licenses in the City and by state law they must be renewed every year in June. So over a decade we renew around 4,000 licenses. And very rarely over the last decade have we ever seriously discussed not renewing one of those 4,000. Does anybody really believe that none of those establishments had problems worthy of nonrenewal?

So, this new scrutiny, this higher bar for bars, is a welcome change. After all, a license to serve alcohol carries with it important responsibilities and the potential to make a fair amount of money. Sending the message that the city of Madison won't just automatically renew a license regardless of how a bar owner has performed is a good thing.

In the end, nobody's license was not renewed. But stiff penalties were handed out to the three establishments. Two of the three establishments had their license suspended for one month, forcing them to lose a complete month of business, albeit the month selected was July. It would have been much tougher to impose the penalty in September when the students are back and football season is in full swing. And, in fact, some members of the Alcohol License Review Commission and the Council wanted to impose even tougher penalties.

But I think the outcome was fair and, of course, if these places don't shape up they're now on notice that their license could go away in the future.

I got elected in 2003 in part promising to encourage a more vibrant nightlife in the city. I was particularly interested in encouraging more places where good local music could be heard. My early appointments to the ALRC reflected those goals and I think we largely accomplished them.

While we did see an increase in live music venues, we also saw an increase in the overall number of licenses, particularly in the downtown area, which has seen a 125% increase. So now I think that reinforcing the message that a license to serve alcohol is a privilege that comes with significant responsibilities is what's needed. Much of this comes down to management practices. A prime example is Club Majestic, who under new management, has solved problems and become a lively and safe venue for music and entertainment several nights a week.

It's not one thing or the other. It's about balance. After all, we can't have a vibrant local music scene with all of the cultural and economic benefits that come with it if people who enjoy those venues aren't safe and comfortable when they are there.


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