ASHLAND, Ky. — A House bill that would lower the seating requirements for downtown Ashland restaurants to serve alcohol from 100 to 50 seats passed both legislative chambers on Tuesday evening and now awaits Gov. Matt Bevin’s signature.
A provision of HB 183, sponsored by Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, would grant “a city with a population of 20,000 or more to adopt an ordinance for 50-seat restaurants if that city already has 100-seat restaurants through a local option election.”
Ashland is neither a “wet” nor “dry” city. Its alcohol law, passed in 1980 and unique to the rest of the state, allows the limited sale of alcoholic drinks in only two downtown precincts. Licensed businesses can sell alcohol by the drink or package. Restaurants must seat at least 100 guests and sales must be split evenly between food and alcohol.
No bars are allowed in the city. The new legislation would continue to prohibit bars, but could attract new, small restaurants to some of the vacant buildings in downtown Ashland.
Local officials with the city and the Ashland Alliance lobbied for the bill and similar legislation in recent years based on the potential new business it is designed to attract.
“This gets Ashland on an even level with every other community in the state that has alcohol sales,” said Alliance President Tim Gibbs. “Hopefully, it will open up the downtown districts for redevelopment.”
“I’m in my 12th year as economic development director and have probably worked 60 restaurant projects that have considered Ashland,” said Ashland Community and Economic Development Director Chris Pullem. “When we hit a snag, it was almost always the cost of making room for 100 seats. They realized how much they have to spend up front to compete against national chains with deep pockets.”
Pullem said business owners would no longer need to focus on renovating downtown property to ensure the restaurant could seat 100 guests comfortably.
“After this passes, when you look at someone who wants to invest in a restaurant, they don’t have to spend all that capital for 100 seats. They can focus on their product and bring something special into downtown Ashland,” Pullem said.
Greg Miller, owner of Alma’s Italian on the corner of 15th Street, had to comply with the 100-seat law when he opened his business in 2015. He believes the new measure is “the right thing for Ashland,” because the current law is a “hindrance to economic growth.”
“There’s a reason all you see in Ashland, Kentucky are big chain, big bucks restaurants,” said Miller. “You look at some of the places in the Huntington, Barboursville area, and you can go to 20 or more restaurants and have a glass of wine.”
Miller, whose restaurant blends Appalachian culture with Italian cuisine, said “it would be nice to see more eclectic places going into Ashland.”
Pullem said there is a local appetite for more unique restaurants in downtown Ashland that many local residents travel as far as Charleston and Lexington to satisfy. “We want to provide those same opportunities here,” he said.
HB 183 passed through the Senate last week 30-6, and through the House again on Tuesday 60-26 for final approval.
“I am thrilled to see it go through,” said Amanda Clark, vice president of operations for the Alliance and Ashland city commissioner. Clark also spent time lobbying for the bill in Frankfort.
The city and the Ashland Alliance had pushed for a similar bill in the Senate last spring that also passed through both legislative chambers. But the bill lacked specificity in its wording, and did not empower the city to lower its seating requirements through ordinance.
“Going into the session we swore we had it worked out, but each year we left disappointed,” said Pullem.
This year, the Ashland delegation worked with the Kentucky League of Cities in its lobbying efforts. They reached out to Koenig about attaching the legislation to his bill regarding alcohol, which came to be HB 183.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, and all state representatives in the northeastern Kentucky region voted in favor of the bill, except for Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, who abstained. “It was not that I wasn’t for it, it just became a question of conflict of interest,” said Sinnette, who is also the assistant city attorney for Ashland and handles oversight and compliance issues.
The bill is set to become law, pending Bevin’s signature.