Liquor bicker at Town Hall as council vetos license transfer and denies renewal

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Town Council balked yesterday at permitting a transfer of liquor license from the defunct Lift restaurant to Pearl Street Market. In turn, the council also denied renewal of said limbo license for another year while a landing place can be found for it.

Councilwoman Hailey Morton Levinson summed up the discussion by agreeing with fellow councilman Jonathan Schechter it was a meeting dominated by liquor talk without actually getting to drink any.

Transfer of liquor licenses require the approval of town council even though the actual details of the transaction—including financial compensation—are left to private parties. In the case of retail liquor licenses, these private transactions have reportedly included large sums in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $500,000, even when the ‘sticker price’ of the license is $1,500 when obtained originally from the town.

Retail liquor licenses are the least restrictive of the various types available to businesses, allowing for the sale and consumption of beer, wine, and spirits both on and off-premise. That is the main reason they are highly coveted.

In addition, the value of retail liquor licenses is further bolstered by their scarcity. By statute, the amount available to any municipality is limited on a population-based metric. Jackson has its max, 20 total retail liquor licenses, all currently in circulation.

Retail liquor license holders in Jackson. (TOJ)

Bucking the trend

Historically, transfer approvals of liquor licenses have been rather routine. If no egregious violations or other red flags are found, approval has been pretty much a slam-dunk. But times are changing and so is the council’s inclinations beginning with Jim Stanford, who has insisted during his tenure that liquor licenses should, according to state law, meet the particular desires of the residents of Jackson.

“I’ve been consistent about this for six-plus years. An open process is in the public’s interest,” Stanford said at the regular town council meeting Tuesday night. “This liquor license was originally awarded for a neighborhood Irish pub in 2002. Apparently that’s run its course. It’s no longer there, it is no longer in business. Everything’s been sold off.”

Stanford said it could turn out that Pearl Street Market is the best place to move the retail liquor license but that should be something determined in an open public forum where other businesses also get to make their pitch.

Mayor Pete Muldoon agreed.

“I do think we should be issuing these licenses for public benefit,” Muldoon said. “The private transactions are beyond the scope of what we deal with. But I do feel comfortable that nobody’s rights are being violated here. I do think we should hold this license for a while and provide for an opportunity for people that aren’t just sitting on a lot of money.”

Morton Levinson also concurred, saying, “This is not a knock on Pearl Street Market, but I would like to see it opened up to the whole town as well.”

She also reminded the council of an August 2017 free-for-all when some 14 businesses vied for three available Bar & Grill liquor licenses.

Town council debates liquor licenses at its meeting Tuesday, February 19. (TOJ)

No soup for you

“It’s not you, it’s us,” was the message the council conveyed to Pearl Street Market who thought they had a private deal worked out with Lift (dba Tastebuds LLC) to buy the liquor license from them.

Representatives from Pearl Street said they were planning a new retail space dedicated to packaged beer, wine and spirits.

“In the winter months, Pearl Street Market turns away 1 or 2 of every 5 customers looking for a bottle of wine, six pack of beer, etc. In the summer months, it’s easily 4 out of every 5,” stated PSM part-owner Mike Reid in an email to the town council.

Another loser in the nixed transfer is Jerry Lundquist. As owner of the property Lift was on (and 43 North before them), it was Lundquist who actually held the retail liquor license. He transferred it to the lessee Thomas Mahin with the understanding it would revert back to him and his limited liability company Longitude Ventures in the event Lift went out of business.

No dice, said the council back in November 2017 when it denied the transfer back to Lundquist. Lundquist’s Plan B was to work out a deal with Pearl Street Market to at least get a six-figure paycheck out of the limbo’d license.

No dice again.

Councilors were willing to consider a liquor license transfer for an ownership change or perhaps a location change but not both.

The council voted unanimously to deny transfer of the retail liquor license to Pearl Street Market.

Renewal of Tastebuds liquor license also shot down

The next order of business for the council last night was to renew (or not) all the liquor licenses in town as part of regular annual paperwork. All were renewed despite some minor noncompliance issues but Tastebuds was pulled out for discussion as a stand-alone agenda item.

Stanford again began the discussion saying he didn’t understand why a renewal of a retail liquor license for Tastebuds was even on the agenda seeing as Lift is gone and plans are for the property to be converted into high-end condominiums.

“Lift is closed and its assets sold off. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to renew this license,” Stanford said. “In 2002, this license was issued for a neighborhood Irish pub. It’s been reported the property has sold and there are plans for redevelopment. It’s merely prolonging the inevitable for another year. I have not heard from anyone that there is even an intention of reopening.”

Morton Levinson agreed. “This license was issued in 2002 and we are now 17 years later. The business is not operating. I know in the past we have easily voted to park it, but for those applications there were indications that business would open again. But I don’t see that here. And even so, 17 years later I don’t know that the residents want to see this sort of business there now.”

Arne Jorgenson admitted to being new to the council but said it was his understanding and experience as an outsider that renewing a ‘parked’ liquor license was a fairly benign order of business for the council.

“My perception of how these discussions have always played out is applicants that have for one reason or another been forced into a nonoperational standpoint, they been given a year to do [find a new use for it]. I’m comfortable to renew this and let that year play out,” Jorgenson said.

Fellow freshman elected Schechter said he found it particularly telling that no one from Tastebuds was on-hand that evening.

“I find it striking that no one from Tastebuds is here. If they were that eager to get it renewed I would hope that they would have the desire to come and plead their case. I’m taken aback by that,” Schechter said.

According to town staff, numerous calls and invitations were made to Mahin, who did not take the opportunity to respond.

Muldoon concurred it was noteworthy that Mahin, “is not here tonight, nor has he demonstrated any interest in securing the liquor license.”

The council voted 1-4 to deny the renewal of Tastebuds’ retail liquor license. Pending any reconsideration by the council at its next meeting, appeal by the applicant, or legal action taken in District Court, the license will revert back to the town for reissuance at a later date. More than one councilmember expressed no hurry to dole it out any time soon.

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