The owners of a proposed new wine bar in downtown Kent received a variance for a liquor license transfer from Kent City Council Wednesday.
The area investors behind Twisted Root Cellars are looking to transfer a liquor license from another community into Kent in order to open a wine bar at 181 E. Main St. inside the Kent Stage building.
Kent has existing regulations for allowing the transfer of liquor licenses via Ohio's "Trex" liquor license transfer process, but Twisted Root Cellars don't meet the existing requirements Kent City Council established in 2012 in order to sign off on such a transfer.
The existing guidelines set by council spell out requirements that must be met before council would sign off on a trex request. The existing guidelines are:
- The entity wanting to bring the trex license transfer into the city must invest a minimum $750,000 in the physical structure (or) building that will hold the license
- The building (or) structure that will hold the license must have a minimum of 4,000 square feet of dining space
- Alcohol sales cannot account for more than 25 percent of total retail sales at the establishment
- Council must review and approve or disapprove all trex transfers
The space for Twisted Root Cellars only has potentially 1,400 square feet, alcohol sales are projected to account for 84 percent of sales and the structural investment would be about $160,000.
All of those numbers fall well short of the city's requirements.
But council members voted to grant a variance from the trex requirements in order to allow Twisted Root Cellars to transfer in a new liquor license in order to open the new wine bar.
The bar will be co-owned by Gary Gardner, Chris Copley and Patrick Madonio, all three of whom are graduates of Theodore Roosevelt High School.
Gardner, who formally asked council for the variance, talked at length about their professional and personal backgrounds and touted their educational accomplishments — all three men hold advanced degrees.
Gardner, an attorney by trade, is general counsel to an Akron development firm. Madonio is president of Brimfield Insurance Group. And Copley, a military veteran, works in the medical field.
"I think there’s a lot of fear … based on past bad things," Gardner said. "For the longest time Kent has had nothing in town here but bars that served the university students."
He said they believe the wine bar will cater to an underserved, adult population in Kent.
The project that the wine bar will have a maximum capacity of 50 people and will have seven employees in the first year. The majority of the seating space will be on the main floor, but the basement of the space will include limited space for a wine cellar and seating for wine tastings, Gardner said.
Kent Economic Development Director Dan Smith said the business owners are planning, for now, to obtain a liquor permit that would only allow the sale of beer and wine.
Several members of council said they viewed the proposal as a quality investment downtown as part of the redevelopment.
But some expressed concerns about what they called the "worst-case scenario" if the wine bar closed and the city was left with one more new liquor license for a potentially low-quality bar to obtain.
"It’s the issue of what happens if something were to go wrong," Councilman Garret Ferrara said. "That’s the issue I wrestle with."
Last month council voted to have the city administration review the guidelines for approving trex transfers that were set in 2012 and adjust them if necessary.
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said city staff are still reviewing the existing guidelines and talking about potential changes, but they have yet to recommend any adjustments in the policy to council.
"We set the bar … for the kind of establishment council was hopeful to see," Ruller said. “We haven’t found one that met those (requirements) yet."
Councilwoman Tracy Wallach said she wanted to see council review those guidelines and adjust them if deemed necessary before approving any trex transfers into the city.
"I want to put a cap on how many bars we have," she said.
Wallach and Councilman John Kuhar cast the only votes against granting the variance to allow Gardner and his partners a trex transfer.
The variance council approved Wednesday comes with the condition that council must sign off on any subsequent sale of the liquor license attached to Twisted Root Cellars.
"I think this fits in with our economic vision for the downtown," Councilwoman Heidi Shaffer said.