Churches and schools don’t mix with alcohol — at least under Arizona law. But Mesa thinks those things are a good mix in parts of downtown.
The city is working to let restaurants that serve alcohol to open near churches and schools, taking advantage of a 2010 state law that eases liquor restrictions.
Across Arizona, only dry establishments can open within 300 feet of churches and charter schools. But new legislation allows cities to create entertainment districts of up to 1 square mile where that rule doesn’t apply.
Mesa is one of the first cities to take action.
And for good reason, considering the city wants more nightlife. Churches and a few schools dot many corners downtown and create numerous alcohol-free areas.
The interest in bars and restaurants is growing with the planned Metro light-rail extension, said David Short, executive director of the Downtown Mesa Association.
“We have a lot of churches and schools downtown, which is a good thing. But there are some places where it limits what kind of businesses can be near them,” Short said. “I think there’s a perception by some that you can’t have any liquor licenses downtown, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Several microbreweries are scouting downtown. Some already are in Arizona, some are from other states and others are start-ups, Short said. He thinks it’s possible to have one chose Mesa within a year.
The city has just started talking to churches and schools, said Gordon Sheffield, Mesa’s zoning administrator.
“There seems to be an understanding of why we’re going through the process but there hasn’t been a comment pro or con,” he said.
Mesa hasn’t plotted churches or schools on a map to see what footprints are created, Sheffield said. The city anticipates the district could be created by year’s end.
The downtown is exactly a square mile, but Sheffield said Mesa isn’t likely to put the entire area in the district. The city needs to be careful when drawing the lines because the legislation authorizing the districts doesn’t explicitly say the boundaries can be changed, Sheffield said. That could slow down the process.
“You want to get it right,” Sheffield said. “That’s maybe more important than meeting a deadline.”
Sheffield and Short said they weren’t aware of any potential restaurants that were turned away or gave up after discovering a desired location was too close to a church or school. But Short said even before light rail opens in 2016, demand will build for more places that serve alcohol. Likely, some current office or non-retail space that’s close to a church will be desirable to restaurants, he said.
Churches and restaurants could object to a proposed establishment, just as they can today. Under Arizona law, liquor license applications go before a city council only for an advisory vote. The state Liquor Board makes the final decision.
The entertainment district demonstrates Mesa is looking to boost its downtown, said Natalie Lewis, an assistant to the city manager.
“We’re tying to remove some red tape, create some flexibility so diverse uses can really thrive in a vibrant downtown environment,” Lewis said.
Also, the city is working on a downtown events district that lifts restrictions on special events. Now, an individual can only hold four special events a year. Those in the district could host an unlimited number. The proposed district runs roughly from Country Club Drive to Sirrine, and from First Street to First Avenue. The eastern end of the district runs south to Second Avenue.
Short said bars and restaurants often thrive along transit lines because it lets people drink without driving. The entertainment district helps market the city’s efforts to get more establishments that serve alcohol, he said.
“We want to be loud and clear that we want bars and restaurants in downtown Mesa and welcome that element,” Short said. “It’s always been available, but it’s even more available. It’s putting an exclamation point on it.”
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