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Theater beer, wine license squeaks through

An excavator and other equipment sit on the site of the planned Violet Crown Theater in Santa Fe on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

An excavator and other equipment sit on the site of the planned Violet Crown Theater in Santa Fe on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe City Council’s dilemma over how to treat businesses with liquor licenses got another airing Wednesday night.

A beer-and-wine application submitted by Violet Crown Cinema, operators of a long-awaited and soon-to-be-built movie theater in the Santa Fe Railyard, barely squeaked through with the council’s approval.

Opposing councilors said they feared Violet Crown’s plan to allow patrons to bring both food and drinks into the cinema’s auditoriums could provide an opportunity for minors to consume alcohol.

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“The applicant may need beer and wine to make a profit, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have a good movie experience,” Councilor Chris Rivera declared. “Our children are too important,”

In a vote split along the city’s geographic lines, the council deadlocked 4-4 on Violet Crown’s request for the license. Councilors Patti Bushee, Peter Ives, Rebecca Wurzburger and Chris Calvert – who represent Santa Fe’s northerly Districts 1 and 2 – endorsed the liquor license application.

Rivera and Councilors Ron Trujillo, Bill Dimas and Carmichael Dominguez, the city’s Districts 3 and 4 representatives, voted against it.

Mayor David Coss broke the tie in favor of the license.

“I look forward to seeing a movie at your theater and maybe having a glass of wine with my dinner,” Coss told Violet Crown owner Bill Banowsky.

The crowd at City Hall offered some applause after the vote and, for one of the few such hearings, cheered City Hall’s issuance of the license.

Violet Crown sought a beer and wine license for a restaurant planned in the theater site. Violet Crown also needed the council to grant a special waiver allowing the cinema to sell alcohol because the premises are within 300 feet of Tierra Encantada Charter School.

The Santa Fe Railyard master plan calls for a movie theater, but getting the project off the ground has proven difficult. Another company was chosen in 2006 to build a theater, but plans fell through due to lack of financing. A gaping hole, excavated for that theater, has sat for years at the proposed theater location next to the Market Station commercial complex in the city-owned Santa Fe Railyard.

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Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., which manages the Railyard, chose Violet Crown over three competitors earlier this year to finally move forward with a new project. Officials say the new theater could be open around the end of 2014.

“I want to remind the council that we mandated the movie theater be here, and I am anxious to get that hole in the ground filled,” Bushee said.

That argument apparently didn’t move everyone. The first indication of resistance came when Trujillo, after Calvert moved to approve Violet Crown’s request, asked if the liquor license was a “do or break thing” for Violet Crown.

The answer was yes.

“We have sought a beer and wine license that is critical to the economic model of building what is not an inexpensive project. To be competitive as a restaurant, we can’t move forward without a beer and wine license,” Banowsky said.

Banowsky added that during the cinema bidding process, the SFRCC required that a restaurant be part of all project proposals. SFRCC director Richard Czoski added that SFRCC’s agreement with Violet Crown would allow the company to terminate its lease if the council didn’t approve the liquor license request.

Violet Crown’s business model will allow patrons to take food and drink ordered at the restaurant into auditoriums where movies are screened. People won’t be served inside the theaters.

Banowsky said he’s discussed the plan with state of New Mexico officials and received a policy exception to allow drinks to be brought into the theaters.

“Across the county it’s becoming more the norm that beer and wine is an amenity to the cinema experience and important to make cinema operations economical,” Banowsky said.

Violet Crown’s theater in Austin has a full liquor license.

“There is no way we would have proceeded with the proposal to build the cinema if we were not able to serve beer and wine,” Banowsky said.

The City Council rubber-stamps dozens of liquor licenses applications every year, ranging from full liquor licenses to beer and wine licenses to temporary licenses for special events. The council approved two other restaurant beer and wine licenses on Wednesday before debating the Violet Crown application.

Two months ago, the City Council approved a full liquor license for the nearby Jean Cocteau Cinema, located on the Railyard’s edge only blocks from the Violet site. But some councilors said they considered the Jean Cocteau in a different light, presumably because that theater shows films geared toward a mature audience.

It’s rare, though not unprecedented, for the City Council to deny a liquor license application, although the fight in recent years has been confined to package stores. In 2011, the council denied a full liquor license to the super Wal-Mart in south Santa Fe, although the state liquor licensing officials overrode the decision.

The city is currently embroiled in a court dispute over the council’s denial of a full liquor license for a Giant convenience store on Airport Road. On Wednesday, the council voted to appeal a recent state Court of Appeals Court decision overturning the city’s decision in the case.

Rivera asked Banowsky if there would be security patrolling to ensure minors weren’t consuming alcohol. Banowsky replied that employees would be monitoring the cinema for numerous reasons.

“My concern is, you’ll have people come in and our big brother could give little brother a beer. People won’t know who’s drinking,” Trujillo said.

Dominguez asked if Banowsky would be willing to work with the Santa Fe Prevention Alliance on alcohol-related training. Banowsky replied in the affirmative.

Councilor Peter Ives observed that other family-friendly venues, including the Albuquerque Isotopes baseball team and the Santa Fe Opera, sell alcohol using a model where people are observed as they make an alcohol purchase but may carry the drink to other areas of the site.

Councilor Patti Bushee noted that “it feels like the beer and baseball argument all over again – with different people and different results.”

Bushee referred to a 2011 vote to allow beer to be sold at Fuego baseball games tied 4-4, with Coss again breaking the tie in favor of allowing the sales to take place. Trujillo, a Fuego fan, was among those who voted in favor of allowing beer sales at the games.

The council voted this year to amend the rules again to allow Fuego fans to consume beer in the entire seating and concession area at Fort Marcy Park, rather than just a fenced-in beer garden. The Fuego agreed to conditions including that there be paid, uniformed guards during the game and to pay for new fencing that will enclose the grandstand area.

Dominguez said the reasons given at Wednesday’s meeting for denying Violet Crown’s application were “weak” and could probably be resolved. Nevertheless, Dominguez voted against the application because, he said, Santa Fe already has too many alcohol outlets in the downtown area.

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