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Town ordinance affects Paradise liquor sales

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The concession stand at the Paradise Theatre was void of alcoholic beverages last week after the theatre was informed by the Town of Paonia about a 2006 ordinance forbidding liquor sales when minors under 21 are present and not accompanied by an adult. Th

After learning recently of a 2006 town liquor ordinance, the Paradise Theatre's board of directors made a quick decision to temporarily cease sales of alcohol during movies, and is asking town trustees to repeal the ordinance. If the ordinance remains part of town code, theatre representatives say they will be hard pressed to keep the historic theatre in operation.

The issue arose after town manager Jane Berry and clerk Corinne Ferguson attended a liquor licensing workshop in Ouray last month. Colorado's liquor licenses are overseen by the Liquor and Tobacco Enforcement Division of the Colorado Department of Revenue.

The theatre, governed by the nonprofit Friends of Paradise Theatre (FPT) holds a "tavern" license, one of about 30 licenses issued by the state. Because every state liquor licensee also holds a town liquor license, the town has a vested interest in ensuring that its licensees adhere to all liquor laws, said Berry.

In late May, Berry and Ferguson met with FPT board president Elaine Brett, treasurer Tom Stevens and new general manager Diana Yourell. Berry said the town was concerned with a state law they learned about at the workshop requiring tavern licensees to have "light snacks (chips, pretzels, nuts, etc.) and sandwiches (repackaged pizzas, burritos, subs, etc.) available to the public during all business hours," according to the state Liquor Licensee Handbook.

"The state is really clamping down on food service," said Berry. While concessions offer popcorn and other snacks, Berry said that to be in compliance, the theatre would need to offer something more substantial, like frozen burritos.

The theatre's state license is up for renewal in July. At the May 24 meeting, trustees approved the FPT's license renewal application, along with a report of changes required by the DOR when a corporation holding a state liquor license has a change in management. The theatre paid $675 in associated fees.

Town Ordinance 2006-02, however, presents a different problem. Municipalities have the power to pass laws that strengthen state liquor laws, but they can't create weaker laws. The ordinance, originally passed in 1996 as an emergency ordinance, is more restrictive than state law, and requires that anyone under age 21 who frequents a business serving alcohol, including an "establishment similar to a movie theatre or playhouse theatre," be accompanied by an adult. The business must also post notice of the law in a conspicuous place.

In other words, as long as anyone under 21 is in the theatre and without a parent or guardian over 21, the town forbids the sale of alcohol. Brett used the recent showing of the movie, "Captain America: Civil War," which attracted a large number of kids to the theatre, as an example of how difficult enforcement would be.

Brett said the theatre will comply with the state food service law, but wants the town to repeal the ordinance. "It's not about people getting drunk," said Brett. "It's about people being able to have a margarita or glass of wine during a show."

The ordinance took the theatre, which has sold alcohol since 2006, by surprise, said Brett. "If something happened between 2006 and now, I would love to see it."

At the time the 1996 and 2006 resolutions were passed, "the town took a more restrictive approach" when it came to children and alcohol, said Berry. In questioning the motives of town staff and the board at the time, she noted that the ordinance is written more for a bar, like Thomas Waldo's, the only other tavern licensee in town. Thomas Waldo's opened New Year's Eve of 2005-06.

From 2006 until about 2014, the town was known for performing very little code enforcement, and the ordinance was never enforced, said Berry. Town staff discovered the ordinance while researching town code. In 2014, according to meeting minutes, the board was considering re-writing the ordinance to be in line with state law, but someone dropped the ball and it was never referenced again.

Noncompliance of the ordinance calls for a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Upon learning of the ordinance and associated penalties, Brett said the board chose to place the appropriate signage in the lobby and cease sales of alcohol. "Did someone look us in the eye and tell us we cannot serve alcohol? No," said Brett. But if the town were to suddenly decide to enforce its own ordinance, the penalty is quite severe. "The idea that someone under 21 can't even walk into a place (serving alcohol) is not even a state regulation," said Brett.

Theaters across the country are already struggling to find creative ways to make their businesses work, explained Brett. The former owners of the Paradise chose to sell alcohol. At the time, said Brett, the state gave them kudos for making it work. The theatre now relies heavily on alcohol sales, which make up about 12 percent of revenue during movies and about 30 percent of the theatre's total budget.

With their best sellers including Big B's Hard Cider and Revolution Brewing beer, sales also support other local businesses. "It's part of the business model that makes it work," said Brett.

Because laws are intended mainly to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors, the staff is also trained to card anyone they suspect is underage. "We do card," said Brett.

Theatre representatives planned to address the board during the visitor segment of the June 14 public meeting and request that the ordinance be repealed. In order for the board to take action, the item must be placed on a meeting agenda and the public given proper notice and an opportunity to comment, which can happen no sooner than the June 28 meeting.

The theatre is not being treated any differently than other licensees, said Berry. As annual license renewals come before the board the town will be checking closely to ensure that those applicants are in full compliance. The issue with the theatre, said Berry, is that the resolution is part of town code and needs to be enforced.

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