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Policy: Law

Slow start for open-market liquor license law

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Photo - David Gladwell, chairman of the state liquor commission, looks on during the monthly meeting of the state liquor commission Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Salt Lake City. The open market for Utah liquor licenses has been quiet since bars were allowed to start selling them directly to would-be business owners this month, the state liquor commission said Tuesday. The slow start doesn't come as a surprise to Gladwell, who thinks most of the 10-12 businesses on the wait list for new licenses through the state will sit tight. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
David Gladwell, chairman of the state liquor commission, looks on during the monthly meeting of the state liquor commission Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Salt Lake City. The open market for Utah liquor licenses has been quiet since bars were allowed to start selling them directly to would-be business owners this month, the state liquor commission said Tuesday. The slow start doesn't come as a surprise to Gladwell, who thinks most of the 10-12 businesses on the wait list for new licenses through the state will sit tight. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The open market for Utah liquor licenses has been quiet since bars were allowed to start selling them directly to would-be business owners this month, the state liquor commission said Tuesday.

Only one bar has announced its intention to sell a license since the law went into effect July 1, said Nina McDermott, director of compliance and licensing enforcement for Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. She spoke during a monthly meeting of the liquor commission.

That bar, Burt's Tiki Lounge in Salt Lake City, has yet to file a formal application. The buyer would be Son Dang Inc., which plans to keep the bar in the same location and use the same name, the notice of transfer document shows.

The law, passed by the Legislature in 2011, allows liquor licenses to be sold for whatever price the two sides agree upon. It's unknown how much Burt's Tiki Lounge will sell its license for. Attempts to reach owners of the bar were unsuccessful.

Previously, the only option for businesses to obtain a liquor license was through the state, where businesses often wait as long as a year. The waits are caused by laws that require liquor licenses to be issued to restaurants based on state population quotas.

The slow start doesn't come as a surprise to David Gladwell, chairman of the state liquor commission, who thinks most of the 10-12 businesses on the wait list for new licenses through the state will sit tight.

"I think many of the applicants are happy to wait and get it for free," Gladwell said.

He said it's far too early to make any assessments of the new law's viability or merits.

The law is the latest modification to Utah's famously stiff liquor laws, which have relaxed a bit in recent years. For instance, until 2009, bars operated as members-only social clubs.

In Utah, an estimated two-thirds of the population belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches members to abstain from alcohol. Church officials this year stressed that the state's liquor policy should stay as it is, saying it keeps residents safe.

Some bar operators have backed the new law, welcoming the state's decision to give up some control when it comes to liquor regulations. Others worry it could spur bidding wars up to a few hundred thousand dollars, smothering new entrepreneurs.

Under the new law, the state will still help handle the transfer. Buyers must qualify under current guidelines and pay $300 in state fees, and sellers must pay off any debts the business took on. The new bar must also stay in the same county.

Also on Tuesday, the state released figures showing liquor sales increased for the 11th consecutive year. The $367 million in total sales in fiscal 2014 are up nearly 6 percent from the previous year and more than double the figure from 2003, data from Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control show.

The figures take into account sales of all alcohol except beer that contains less than 4 percent alcohol by volume, which can be purchased at grocery and convenience stores.

Gladwell attributed the increase to population growth and an improving economy that has led people to buy more expensive liquor.

A more detailed set of figures showing the year's sales, including a breakdown of consumption of beer, wine and flavored alcoholic beverages, will be released in the coming months.

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