Downtown Dining Liquor Exemption Bill Passes

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Downtown Restaurant Area Map

The Florida legislature on Thursday passed HB1447 enabling the establishment of a downtown dining district that will allow an exemption of current liquor law restrictions for smaller restaurants.

The exemption will allow restaurants with a minimum of 80 seats and at least 1,800 square feet to serve full liquor. Currently, restaurants must have the capacity to serve at least 150 customers at one time and occupy a space of at least 2,500 square feet to be able to serve full liquor, or purchase a license for approximately $300,000.

Although there is currently an officially designated downtown redevelopment district, the Downtown Restaurant Area expands beyond those borders slightly. Essentially, the area runs from Gore Street south of downtown; Colonial Drive to the north (with a partial bulge extending to Lake Ivanhoe between Interstate-4 and Highland Avenue); Westmoreland Drive on the west; and Ferncreek Avenue on the east. (The map is at top.)

The need for the exemption arose from a focus group comprised of restaurateurs and other foodservice professionals that was formed as part of Project Downtown Orlando (DTO). Among the concerns expressed during those meetings was the frustration of smaller restaurants trying to compete with businesses serving full liquor, especially downtown with its proliferation of bars. One of the committee members cited other Florida communities that had previously been granted an exemption and city representatives decided to appeal to the state legislature.

The bill was drawn up and sponsored by state representative Mike Miller. At a meeting in October attended by supporters of the proposal, members of the local delegation voted unanimously to back the bill.

(Full disclosure: I chaired the restaurant stakeholder group and spoke in support of the bill's passing at the October meeting.)

The potential impact that this exemption will have on the downtown restaurant scene can't be overstated. The economic truth is that restaurants that offer full liquor service have a better chance of succeeding. But that alone isn't the reason to be optimistic -- there's no reason to get excited about bad or mediocre restaurants serving cocktails.

The real potential is in the ability to attract new talent to open restaurants downtown. I believe that one of the only reasons New Orleans has more -- not better in all cases -- good restaurants led by talented chefs is that the city's liberal liquor laws allow them a chance to make a profit.

It's an exciting time for downtown Orlando. The Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, Amway Center, two stadiums, the coming Creative Village and UCF's downtown campus are transforming Orlando into a world class city. Now we can look forward to new and promising restaurants as part of the renaissance.