Some time ago, a friend of mine took issue with a comment I made about Madison's sometimes testy relationship with its business community, disputing my claim that the city could be less than friendly towards many of its economic engines from time to time. Recently I found my exhibit A in the trials of the proposed Badger Hall of Fame Grill from Scott Acker, owner of the Quaker Steak and Lube restaurant in Middleton, who had planned to open a restaurant in University Square. But now it is doubtful the restaurant will ever open, due to the intense hassle Acker has had to go through to open its doors.
What is this hassle? Were there problems with construction? Was he unable to secure financing in these troubling economic times? Did the business venture simply fail to look profitable? No, supposedly none of these were problems. What haunts this project is that omnipresent boogeyman that looms over Madison politics and sends your average city official running in search of a night light, the boogeyman known to most of us as ""alcohol.""
At the last meeting of the Alcohol License Review Committee, members spent four hours peppering Acker with questions about the restaurant's 900-person capacity, his plans for crowd control and his target audience. Many of these were valid queries, as an establishment just a block down the street from the Kohl Center could get a little chaotic when serving 900 rowdy, drunken fans after a hockey game. But this wasn't just any regular Joe trying to open a bar, Acker has experience running a successful similar establishment, albeit in much quieter Middleton, and that had to count for something. Plus, the restaurant didn't even require a full liquor license, so long as it kept alcohol under 50 percent of its total sales that wouldn't be necessary.
There was another hang-up on that point, as several members of the ALRC seemed to doubt the restaurant could stay under that threshold. In the restaurant's favor were the limited bar seating and tiered levels of the restaurant that would make sectioning off customers easy. Also, the grill would have a clear market niche, as it would be one the few places near campus where 18-20 year-olds could legally hang out with upperclassmen friends while the 21-and-up crowd enjoyed their drinks. But according to the ALRC, apparently this is an impossible feat. Most places would give a businessman with a successful track record like Acker the benefit of the doubt, or at least a chance to prove he can operate the business as he says he would. But not Madison, apparently here if you haven't experienced the savage, apocalyptic streets of downtown around bar time, you don't know what you're doing. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that the restaurant would either need a dramatic redsign or it stood no chance of approval.
Never mind that Acker had already accomplished a lot by simply getting his plan in place at all. The original plan for the University Square space was for another restaurant called Field Pass, but its prospective owners couldn't get enough cash and had to vacate the project midway through. This left U-Square with a half-finished venue, and any prospective tenants would need to either incorporate the existing infrastructure or spend a couple million dollars to clear the previous construction out. Acker had a plan to work the prior material into his design, but it will be a challenge to find a new client who will be as accomodating or sink even more money into the project to fit it to a specific purpose.
On top of the issues University Square has had with the former Field Pass location, they've struggled to fill the space next door earmarked for a grocery store. Their deal with Roundy's fell through, and now, a new suitor seems to have shallower pockets than originally thought. It appears that the entire Lake Street storefront of one of downtown's biggest behemoths will lie empty for the foreseeable future.
The ALRC seems to be comfortable with that. It's not their job to make sure Madison has a thriving, bustling downtown and campus area. Their job is to protect us from that horrible alcohol boogeyman. Because if another bar opens in Madison, surely our infrastructure will begin to crumble, the entire city will fall apart and we will be left wandering the streets, wondering what destroyed our once great civilization.
""Too many damn bars,"" someone will surely say. ""If only we'd built one less bar, the ruination of society could have been avoided.""
So to recap: A successful businessman comes to Madison and wants to apply his trade, the ALRC insists they know how to run a restaurant better than he does, they make him radically adjust his plans even though he had been very accommodating already, and in the end push him to give up on his plans and let another retail property stand dormant, ensuring the property will contribute to the community in no way whatsoever.
And you wonder why Madison has an anti-business reputation.
Todd Stevens is a junior majoring in history and psychology.. We welcome all feedback. Please send responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.