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South Salt Lake Journal

Liquor licenses slow to attract applicants

Mar 09, 2023 10:48AM ● By Zak Sonntag

South Salt Lake resident Cam Jorgensen laughs with friends at SaltFire Brewing. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

On a Friday night in February, in the tavern room at SaltFire Brewing Company in South Salt Lake (2199 S. West Temple), locals clink pints of foam-topped ale in celebration of the weekend’s arrival.

“At the end of a long work week this feels right. Meeting friends, having a drink. I love trying strange new beers so it’s nice to see places like this coming around. The best part is it only took me four minutes to get here,” said SSL resident Cam Jorgensen, sliding pucks down a table shuffleboard while sipping a winter lager.

Jorgensen, who works in media sales, is amongst the city’s growing number of young professionals helping drive the area’s fledgling night life. 

And they aren’t the only ones, as lately city leaders appear eager for the night life, too.

The South Salt Lake City Council in 2022 voted to increase liquor licenses in the downtown area, bringing the city’s total number of allowable bars and taverns to 14.

Although as officials see the move as a way to generate vibrancy downtown, the new permits—coveted items in a state with tight license quotashave failed to attract applicants, begging questions about the district’s appeal.

“I’d guess businesses would be excited to grab those (licenses). It surprises me no one has yet. I mean look how many people are here tonight—it’s crowded,” Jorgensen said. “West Temple has stuff going on, but I’d like to see it have more.” 

Challenges of an industrial landscape

Despite statewide demand for liquor licenses, colloquially known as “golden tickets,” SSL’s new permits are limited to its downtown district, an industrial area populated by warehouses not designed for food and beverage retail.

“The biggest problem facing bars and restaurants coming into South Salt Lake is unless they're moving into a new building, which can be really expensive, they're having to retrofit what were basically industrial warehouses,” said Ryan Miller, owner of SaltFire Brewing. 

“Having to bring those spaces up to new city codes requires a significant amount of capital investment,” Miller said, who cited pricey outlays for infrastructure like septic systems, sand separators and landscaping, a process that took two years to complete.

Right around the corner is Apex Brewing, at 2285 S. Main, on the verge of opening its doors after a similarly protracted buildout delayed by unanticipated construction expenses, according to city officials familiar with the project.

Can mom-and-pop business afford SSL?

This presents a challenge for the city if cost-prohibitive overhauls mean SSL is off the table for small business that lack capital. 

Jonathan Weidenhamer, South Salt Lake’s Community and Economic Development director, emphasized the city’s desire for new local establishments to set up in SSL.

“I think as communities grow, small businesses are everything. Each of these places give an authentic and unique local place where real people and residents can congregate, get together.  They create an area that builds character, builds fabric and builds community,” said Weidenhamer.

Marketplace versus public planning

Weidenhamer says his department will play an important role in helping create community fabric, but he believes the new liquor licenses remain on ice primarily as a result of basic market demand.

“There’s a number of existing breweries in town and in that district,” he said. “As our new units come online they’ll start to absorb demand, which is a pretty long cycle but I think (licenses) will start to fulfill themselves just as the market demands.”

Although Miller, who transitioned from a career in IT to pursue his passion for brewing in 2016, thinks city leaders could do more to help entrepreneurs get a start in SSL 

He said planning authorities were not especially collaborative during his 24-month retrofit process, and argues that current city code puts too much of the landscaping burden on upstart enterprises like SaltFire, who lease rather than own property.

“Restaurants might occupy 4,000 square feet of a 22,000-square-foot property, but now they have to put in landscaping in an industrial area that’s covered by concrete and asphalt,” Miller said, adding that some property owners are disinclined to replace parking lot space with landscaping to begin with, which makes the search for rentable space more challenging still. 

“We lease a very small section of it and you're telling me I have to landscape something that isn't mine,” he said. “We were eventually able to make it happen only after a lot of hairpulling and teeth pulling to figure things out with the city. It would have been much easier if somebody from the planning department was assisting in the process, not just being a gatekeeper saying no (when proposals didn’t meet code).”

Changing of the guard

Recent changes in the city’s bureaucratic lineup—including the new Economic Development Director Weidenhamer, who began with the city at the start of 2023—offers reason to believe that those who follow in SaltFire’s footsteps may find the process more agreeable.

Weidenhamer, who came to South Salt Lake after 23 years in planning and project management with Park City, where he worked with brewing and distilling industries in an effort to diversify the mountain town’s tourism economy, says he wants SSL to be proactively involved with its small business community.

“Instead of being reactive—‘Yes, no, you didn’t check the box, go back and do it again’—I intend to bring a proactive philosophy and approach to South Salt Lake immediately,” he said. 

“I very much see that South Salt Lake's role in economic development is to bridge those gaps for local and small businesses who are either here and want to expand or who want to relocate here.”

Tough margins

Even as Weidenhamer says there may be opportunity to “tune up” the code to encourage a vibrant business district, he nonetheless believes that prevailing market forces are the most decisive factor in the city’s commercial makeup.

In some ways market trends bode well for the downtown district. As the area’s population continues to grow and residential development increases, the demand for services—like bars and restaurants—are likely to follow.

However, those same forces have increased the competition for land, driving the price of commercial parcels upward while pinching a food service industry already operating on thin margins, threatening to diminish business diversity and local ownership.

“If they have to charge 25 bucks for a plate of pasta or a hamburger, at what point are half the people who live in this community unable to afford that?” Weidenhamer said.

Jorgensen said after living through the lockdown he better appreciates gathering spaces like SaltFire.

“I realized during the pandemic why spaces like this are so valuable,” he said. “The fact that we have somewhere to go and not just sit at home watching Netflix, I don’t take that for granted.”