Tacoma wants more inspections of beer gardens

Holding an event with a beer garden in Tacoma could get a little more expensive in the future — and involve a few additional guests.

Tacoma officials might start conducting their own inspections of beer and alcohol gardens next year, and they are considering whether to charge event organizers new fees to cover the city’s added staffing costs.

Beer gardens are outdoor areas where alcohol is served. They can range from a beer- and wine-tasting tent at a special event to the extension of an existing bar or restaurant into a city street.

Enforcement officers with the state Liquor Control Board are currently responsible for checking that beer gardens at special events in Tacoma comply with state alcohol rules, said Kala Dralle, an economic development specialist with the city of Tacoma.

But at a July 15 committee meeting of the Tacoma City Council, Dralle said that the Liquor Board “doesn’t on a regular basis send someone to look.”

“It’s the word of the person who is putting the commercial beer garden up that they do it according to and complying with the rules of the Washington State Liquor Control Board,” Dralle said.

“We really do want to make sure they are following the rules and not causing high-risk situations,” Dralle said.

Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the Liquor Control Board, said state enforcement officers do perform compliance checks at local events that have special permits to serve alcohol. Often, however, the officers will show up primarily in response to complaints, he said.

“We get more than 3,000 special occasion licenses each year, and we do have limited resources and enforcement officers,” Carpenter said. “They can’t be everywhere at every time.”

Recently in Tacoma, beer gardens have been part of events such as Art on the Ave on Sixth Avenue and the Old Town Rhythm & Blues Festival. With permission from the city and the Liquor Board, restaurants and bars can also set up their own beer gardens independent of a community event.

Dralle said city officials “would like to see better compliance at Art on the Ave with the regulations,” though she didn’t mention any specific problems with beer gardens at the event this year.

Dan Smith, president of the Sixth Avenue Business District, said this year’s Art on the Ave had more beer gardens than ever – about six or seven. In previous years, only about three or four restaurants chose to extend their bar service outdoors as part of the festival, he said.

“This year it seemed that everyone who had a restaurant had a beer garden,” said Smith, who is the owner of Tacoma Custom Jewelers. “Maybe that caused some raising of eyebrows.”

Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said she “hadn’t heard of any issues at all” at the event this year.

City staff wouldn’t return a reporter’s calls to discuss any problems that might have occurred at events with beer gardens in the past.

The Tacoma City Council has yet to act on increasing alcohol enforcement at beer gardens. City staff are still developing a formal proposal, which council members will consider later this year as they finalize the city’s two-year budget.

If approved, the new fees and inspections would begin in January, Dralle said.

Justin Whitcher, manager of The Matador restaurant in downtown Tacoma, said new inspection fees would add to the cost of holding events but wouldn’t stop the restaurant from setting up a beer garden twice a year. The Matador holds an end-of-summer event involving a beer garden, as well as an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.

“It would just add more fees to what we’re already spending to get permits,” Whitcher said. “We don’t like it, we don’t like paying it, but in the end it is just part of doing business in downtown.”

Mario Lorenz, district manager of the Sixth Avenue Business District and the Hilltop Business Association, said groups putting on public events generally already pay the city for services such as traffic control and garbage collection. Other costs for outdoor event organizers include renting portable toilets and barricades to close streets, he said.

“To tack on another fee seems like overkill,” said Lorenz, who is helping organize the Aug. 23 Hilltop Street Fair. “It’s tough enough as it is.”

City Councilman Marty Campbell said the city doesn’t want to discourage businesses and other groups from holding special events that improve life in Tacoma, especially because such gatherings can generate more sales tax revenues for the city.

“The whole intent of more special events or more event things is vitality, more bars opening up and inviting the neighbors to come in and be there,” Campbell said. “I want to make sure we’re not getting in our own way.”