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Legislature again considering theater liquor license
By Zoey Palmer
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
A tub of popcorn, a giant pretzel and a cold beer. Refreshments at your seat as you watch a favorite movie at the local theater.
Movie theaters in Washington may soon be able to legally serve beer and wine for adults to enjoy alongside minors watching a show. Legislation being considered by lawmakers in Olympia would, if approved, create a new liquor license for theaters where movies or performances such as dances or plays are held.
House Bill 1001 may help independent, locally owned theaters compete with large chain multiplexes, supporters say. Rep. Jim Moeller (D-49th District, Vancouver), who introduced the bill, stated this intent at a public hearing before the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee Jan. 17
"This bill is about small theaters," he said. "It's about historic theaters like the Kiggins in my hometown."
Dan Wyatt, Jr., who, along with his father, owns the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver, said during the hearing that small theaters lack the space and corporate buying power of large, multiple-screen theaters. High-quality digital projection is very costly, he said, as is getting the latest blockbuster titles to show in the single-screen venue.
"There's one struggle after another," said Wyatt.
Being able to serve beer and wine to adult patrons would give small theaters another source of revenue to compete with suburban multiplexes, said Wyatt.
Some multiplexes, such as the Cinebarre in Mountlake Terrace, are able to serve alcohol because they also serve meals; under current liquor laws, they qualify as restaurants. Small theaters, such as the one owned by Kiggins, don't have room for a full kitchen and dining area.
The license provided under the new legislation would cost $400 per year to serve beer, wine or both with no requirements for serving food.
Supporters also claim that independent theaters can be a boon to local communities. Dan Wyatt Sr., said that, during the 1970s, Vancouver was home to "card rooms and not-so-much-desirable people," but thriving businesses helped improve the area.
"I think it's crucial that we support this area to continue that growth," he said. "The movie theater is a point of interest that gets people in the downtown area."
Representatives from theaters in Seattle — the Paramount, the Moore and the Neptune — and Liberty in Camas also testified in support of the bill.
Representatives from the Washington State Liquor Control Board identified areas in the bill that may be difficult to implement and suggested changes.
"Ultimately, our concern has always been public safety," said WSLCB Deputy Director Rick Garza.
Controlling alcohol that is being consumed in a dark theater with minors present, he said, as well as the different needs of large multiplexes and smaller theaters need to be addressed.
WSLCB Licensing and Regulation Director Alan Rathbun said that theaters, like restaurants and bars, need to require employees to have alcohol-server training permits. "The servers are the last line of defense in making sure that minors aren't served and that there isn't over-service," he said.
The bill would require theaters to submit to the WSLCB a "liquor control plan" explaining how they intend to keep alcohol away from minors.
Rathbun also recommended that the definition of "theater" be made more specific, and that for-profit licensees be able to accept sponsorships from alcohol suppliers to increase revenues in the same way as non-profit theaters, which, under current law can be licensed to serve alcohol.
Some opponents of the bill say that allowing alcohol in more places encourages and normalizes alcohol abuse and sends a harmful message to kids.
"We now see sampling or the sale of alcohol at farmer markets, grocery stores, wedding boutiques, spas, theaters, senior centers and so forth," said Seth Dawson of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse Prevention.
"Please consider not just these individual bills piecemeal, but in their totality," he urged lawmakers.
Mary Ellen de la Pena, a 20-year veteran of drug-abuse prevention in the Kitsap area, said that, while she understands the economic value of serving alcohol in small theaters, if adults appear to need alcohol in order to enjoy a fun activity like watching a movie, she predicts it may create a harmful model for kids to follow.
Those who are recovering from alcoholism often have to avoid places where alcohol is served, said Wanda Rochelle of Safe Streets Tacoma, a community-organizing group.
"I love to shoot pool, I love to dance, I love to go to a theater," she said. Rochelle, who is in recovery, said she can no longer do many things she enjoys.
The bill, said Rochelle, would further limit the things she can do for fun. She urged committee members to consider persons who are in recovery. "There are a lot of us out there who are faced with this on a daily basis," she said.
A similar bill introduced last session by Moeller was approved by the House; it failed to gain final Senate consideration before the session ended.
On Tuesday (Jan. 29) the bill was passed unanimously with minor amendments by the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee. The bill now goes to the House Rules Committee, which could set it for a floor vote, or direct it to another committee for additional consideration. Its Senate companion bill, SB 5111, has not been scheduled for a hearing.
The text of the bill and a list of sponsors may be accessed at:.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.