On Jan. 17, the mayors of St. Cloud and Kissimmee asked state legislators to introduce special liquor license bills for small downtown restaurants.
The bills would shrink the minimum required size of a restaurant from 2,500 square feet to 1,000, and reduce the number of patrons from 150 to 50. Restaurants would still need to derive at least 51 percent of sales from food and non-alcoholic drinks.
We sat down this week to talk with the mayors of St. Cloud and Kissimmee, Nathan Blackwell and Jose Alvarez, respectively, along with small downtown Kissimmee restaurant owner Jackie Espinosa, to learn how this proposed legislation could revitalize downtown areas in their cities.
From Nathan Blackwell, mayor of St. Cloud
Osceola News-Gazette: Why do you think this new liquor license bill is good for downtown St. Cloud?
Nathan Blackwell: We have people who are interested in starting restaurants downtown.
In order to get a liquor license though, you have to have a minimum of 2,500 square feet.
We’re in the process of trying to revitalize our downtown, and most of the places we currently have available are smaller places.
But people would like to be able to serve a meal and some would like to have a mixed drink. They ought to be able to have the same right as someone who has a 3,000 square foot plus facility.
This was brought to my attention by staff about three months ago, that people who were looking at opening a restaurant or café would like to have the ability that a larger restaurant has.
News-Gazette: And then what?
Blackwell: Our staff got together with the staff at Kissimmee to make sure we were both on the same page, so that we were requesting the same thing.
We believe it will help us to bring in more business and bring more people into the downtown. It will contribute to the growth and revitalization of our downtown, which we’ve been investing quite a bit of money into trying to give it a facelift.
It does the same thing for Kissimmee, too. They’re just a little further ahead of us as far as redeveloping their downtown.
News-Gazette: How successful do you think the bills will be when state lawmakers introduce them in Tallahassee in March?
Blackwell: Oh, we think they will be very successful.
From talking with (state Representative) Mike La Rosa, they’re wanting to do something on the state level so that little municipalities like us don’t have to deal with this over and over again.
It’s a reasonable request. Just because you have 1,000 square feet instead of 3,000 doesn’t mean you should be discriminated against.
News-Gazette: Have you gotten any push back from residents concerned about safety issues?
Blackwell: In downtown St. Cloud, we certainly have ordinances and rules that prohibit that (disorderly conduct.) Each restaurant will help monitor that, but if someone becomes a problem – listen, we’re not looking at making it a bar district downtown. We’re just looking to have nice little restaurants that are able to serve mixed drinks.
But if there’s a problem, you would call the police just like you would any other restaurant. It could happen at a bigger restaurant just as easily as it could at a smaller one.
News-Gazette: Why did St. Cloud decide to work alongside Kissimmee by introducing nearly identical bills to state lawmakers last week? Even La Rosa commented that it’s unusual to see this.
Blackwell: That’s something that’s frustrated me in the past. St. Cloud has had this reputation of wanting to do its own thing, and not work with the county and certainly not work with Kissimmee.
From Jose Alvarez, the mayor of Kissimmee
Osceola News-Gazette: Why did you decide to propose this bill to state lawmakers?
Alvarez: We did this so that small business owners would have some assistance to themselves economically. Of course there’s restrictions that come with this request, but it does bring help. It opens the doors for others that see that opportunity that they can now open their own place here.
News-Gazette: Do you think this is a bigger opportunity for business owners who are already here, or does it have the potential to attract new investments?
Alvarez: Both. It opens doors for the new ones coming in. But it especially assists the ones that are already here. We would love to see them grow enough where they say, “Well, now instead of having a 1,200 square foot property, I want to open up a larger restaurant because my business has done better.”
One of the things I requested when we went in front of the legislators the other day, is this could be something not only for St. Cloud and Kissimmee – it should be something they look at statewide for growth of other businesses in other areas.
News-Gazette: What made you want to work with St. Cloud on this measure?
Alvarez: Mayor Blackwell and myself since day one, we’ve decided we need to work together as two cities in the same county. It’s the only way to see growth for the entire county. When you have two cities that aren’t working side-by-side, it’s a problem.
News-Gazette: What made you want to introduce this legislation now?
Alvarez: I’ve seen how it’s worked in the city of Orlando. We’ve seen how the businesses have boomed in downtown Orlando as a result.
And of course, listening to our own business owners here in downtown Kissimmee, we thought this was the best time to get this moving forward.
News-Gazette: How optimistic are you about this bill passing?
Alvarez: You know, every time we go to Tallahassee, we go holding our breath.
But we hope that they see this as something that’s going to help economically and it’s going to help small businesses.
Especially not only to get it done here, but if they would do this statewide, it would do a lot economically there too.
I feel very optimistic and I hope they see the need. I told the legislators that it would be great to see it come out as a bi-partisan bill.
From Jackie Espinosa, owner of Matador Tacos & Tapas in Kissimmee
Osceola News-Gazette: How would this bill help the downtown Kissimmee area?
Espinosa: We currently have less than a handful of liquor licenses and several restaurants in our immediate district that would fit the new criteria.
This means being able to stay open longer hours, hire more staff and the state’s Department of Revenue would also generate more tax dollars.
Our downtown would be more of a destination as oppose to a city thoroughfare.
News-Gazette: How would this bill specifically help your restaurant, Matador Tacos & Tapas?
Espinosa: Matador currently offers beer and wine, and our sangria menu is a hit. Nevertheless, we have to refer people to downtown Kissimmee’s five current establishments with liquor licenses - 3 Sisters, Breeze, Hatfield’s, Miguelo’s Lounge and Shipwrecked on the Islands.
Matador offers diverse entertainment and we often pack our house. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer that customer their request for a Long Island Iced Tea or a Gin and Tonic, as they watch our very nice and carefully planned evenings of entertainment.
People leave our venue and comment, “When will you guys be offering liquor?” We hear this at least 10 times a day, including Sundays.
News-Gazette: How did you and other local business owners come to explore creating this bill?
Espinosa: We have some great friends in Orlando that commented about this bill helping them out. [A nearly identical piece of legislation passed the Statehouse last year that effected small downtown Orlando restaurants.]
We mentioned this and met with the Kissimmee city manager about eight months ago and he said to send him the ordinance, along with as much information as possible, so he could look into it.
We started interviews with different Orlando businesses and met with a few St. Cloud residents that are also patrons of Matador.
Some of our dear friends, Mel and Michelle Welch, are closely involved with changes in St. Cloud, and they helped us do some research.
We then gathered enough information to present to (Development Services Director) Craig Holland and City Manager Mike Steigerwald, and the noise began. We insisted this be addressed quickly as we understood the legislative delegation was up and coming, and if we missed the deadline, we would have to wait until 2020.
Well, I proceeded to contact our state lobbyist, Mr. Peebles, and then spoke with our state Rep. John Cortes.
I thought if I became the squeaky wheel, someone would hear me.
Apparently, it seems to have worked.
News-Gazette: How many other restaurants could possibly receive a liquor license if this passed?
Espinosa: My husband visited many of our neighbors and asked about their seating capacity - we truly lobbied within our own downtown.
We discovered about five restaurants have the capacity to sit 50 people, have 1,000 square feet and serve over 51 percent of revenue in food.
That’s why this is huge for our historic district. Some of us have to struggle to keep our employees and offer affordable menus. This will allow us to have a broader menu and keep our food at a great price.
News-Gazette: Are there any concerns about safety you’ve heard?
Espinosa: I believe our downtown has very vested business owners. We have a great line of communication and work together. We have to enforce internal procedures to tap someone out when necessary, and to implement safety procedures for any unruly behavior.
The Kissimmee Police Department is literally in our backyard and most people know that our law enforcement team is just steps away.
We are planning a meeting with restaurant owners as we get closer to this final bill passing. We will be sharing all these findings with our local neighbors as we create a new vision for our downtown.