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Small Utah Convention Centers to be Stripped of Liquor Licenses in 2011

By Dawn House, The Salt Lake TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 29, 2010--The state is no longer issuing liquor licenses to small convention centers, and five facilities in Salt Lake County will be stripped of their existing permits next year.

Liquor control chairman Sam Granato said the law has an unintended effect of increasing the flow of free alcohol at corporate gatherings. Without the permits, conventiongoers will have to pack in their own liquor, which often results in free, open bars, he said.

This week, Ken Millo, owner of a convention center in the historic Post Office building in Sugar House, appealed to the commission for help in changing the law.

"I don't think we have a chance of getting a bill passed this session," said Millo. "In an election year, there's not much hope of anyone pushing for a change in the state's liquor laws."

Millo's investment company poured more than $1 million in remodeling costs for the Cucina Nassi center, located at 2155 S. Highland Drive. The center accommodates up to 350 guests for business luncheons, weddings and other prearranged events.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission gave Millo a convention license in December 2008, shortly after he opened.

Months later, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, sponsored legislation that allowed only the state's largest convention center, with 30,000 or more square feet, to serve liquor at business meetings. Valentine had said that he made the change at the request of Kathryn Balmforth, who at the time served

on the alcohol-control board.

Balmforth, whose term has expired, had been consistently outvoted by her colleagues in granting licenses to small convention centers. Balmforth repeatedly said she feared a proliferation of small wedding centers serving alcohol.

But Granato, who is running for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket, said the licenses gave small centers control over alcohol. For instance, centers must have trained servers, meters atop bottles to measure the amount of alcohol in each drink and insurance that covers injuries that might occur from drunk driving.

And the board has the power of granting or withholding licenses, which he termed another control over alcohol sales.

"I'm hopefully optimistic that the Legislature at some point with reconsider licenses for small convention centers," he said. "As a board, we have the power to ensure that these licenses are given out in a prudent manner."

At the Cucina Nassi center, only 15 percent of the sales come from alcohol, said Millo. But if the center doesn't have alcohol available, he said, "we'll lose bookings. Perhaps only one or two people will drink, but if we cannot provide the service, the entire convention will go elsewhere."

The commission rule, overturned by lawmakers, qualified centers with at least 3,000 square feet of dining space for liquor permits. The Cucina Nassi has more than 11,000 square feet.

Four other small convention centers also applied for licenses and renewed the permits this year.

"We are hopeful the commission will agree that there is a substantial element of inequity and unfairness resulting form this change of legislation," wrote Millo's attorney, Jay Gamble, in a letter to the control board. "Perhaps it even rises to the level of taking a vested (albeit annually renewable) right without compensation."

Gamble suggested that the Legislature allow small centers with licenses to keep them. Under current law, however, liquor permits at small centers are set to expire in October 2011.

State population quotas allow for 94 liquor permits at hotels, resorts, sports arenas and convention centers. Currently, 20 licenses are available.

Small convention centers with liquor permits:

-- Cucina Nassi, in the historic Sugar House Post Office, 2155 S. Highland Drive.

-- The Gathering Place at Gardner Village, 1100 W. 7800 South, West Jordan.

-- La Caille at 9565 Wasatch Blvd., Sandy.

-- Pierpont Place at 163 Pierpont Ave., in downtown Salt Lake City.

-- Woods on Ninth, 6775 S. 900 East, Midvale.


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