FRANKFORT, Ky. — A state bill that could help attract business to downtown Ashland by slashing the minimum seating requirement for businesses to sell alcohol to 50 is en route to the Senate.
House Bill 183 was approved 57 to 25 Wednesday night on the House floor.
A provision of the bill, which is 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 has allowed the sale of alcohol since an election in 1980, but with a caveat unique to the rest of the state.
The city’s alcohol status only allows the sale of alcoholic beverages by the drink and package in two “limited sale” precincts in the downtown area. By state law, restaurant owners who wish to sell alcohol by the drink must provide at least 100 seats for customers, and sales of food and alcoholic drinks must be split evenly at 50 percent.
The city’s status also prohibits bars from opening in the city. That provision would not change if HB 183 becomes law.
City officials and members of the Ashland Alliance have pushed for similar legislation over the past four years.
“When you look at how other communities are rejuvenating their downtowns, they’re doing it with the addition of small, local shops and local restaurants that serve a certain niche in the community,” said city Community and Economic Development Director Chris Pullem, who had lobbied for the bill in Frankfort before the start of the legislative session.
The bill could ease the process for smaller restaurants to move into some of the vacant buildings near Winchester Avenue. Small business owners who wish to open a bistro or café but feel they need to serve cocktails and other drinks to compete with larger restaurants could be more interested in locating downtown, for instance.
“Downtown, there aren’t too many spaces available that can seat 100 people comfortably,” Pullem said. “This will allow them (business owners) to scale their restaurant to a level that makes them competitive.”
Mayor Steve Gilmore said the bill would help “even the playing field.”
“The small restaurants, the small cafés, this would give them a better shot,” he said, adding that the bill is simply a tool in economic development.
Gilmore said officials are confident the bill will pass through the Senate. Pullem said Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, seemed to understand “this is not so much an amendment to expand alcohol sales as it is to level the playing field,” when the Ashland delegation lobbying for the bill last spoke with him.
City officials had thought the state had passed “50 seat” legislation last spring when a similar bill they’d lobbied for in the Senate passed through the General Assembly. But because the bill’s language was not precise, it didn’t empower the city to lower its seating requirements.
Reps. Jill York, R-Grayson, Rocky Adkins, D-Morehead, and Danny Bentley, R-Russell, voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, who is also the Assistant City Attorney for Ashland, abstained from the vote.