Thirsty for Change: Could Oak Park’s Dry Days Be Numbered?

Thirsty for Change: Could Oak Park’s Dry Days Be Numbered?

(C. Proxmire, Dec. 7, 2012)

To some, Ferndale is an oasis of fun, with over 20 bars and restaurants in the Downtown area alone. But further West up 9 Mile the modern taxbusiness composition changes and something seems to be missing. There isn’t anywhere to sit down and have a glass of wine with dinner, or a pub to have a beer and watch the game.  That’s because the City of Oak Park is dry.

Oak Park is one of only four cities in Michigan that are do not permit the sale of liquor in a glass, three of which are in Oakland County according to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s Nov. 2012 report.  Also in Oakland County, Sylvan Lake’s 1,720 residents are unable to enjoy spirits in their city.  And Michigan’s smallest incorporated city, Lake Angelus City, with a population of just 290 residents is also dry.

Up north in Misaukee County, McBain’s 656 residents live in a city where alcohol cannot be served.  Throughout the state there are 236 townships that also prohibit liquor licensing; those most have populations of less than 1,000.

In comparison, Oak Park has 29,319 residents, making it the largest Michigan city with such a ban in place.

Since the City of Oak Park was incorporated in 1945, its Charter has prohibited the serving of spirits in a glass.  But now as the city struggles to attract investment and local restaurants struggle to attract customers, Oak Parkers who are thirsty for a change are working to end the unusual prohibition.

City Manager Erik Tungate explained the impetus for change and the complexities of the process to make that change a reality.

Economic Development

Tungate, who started his job in Oak Park just four months ago after serving as the City Manager of Hamtramck, said that liquor licenses are an “economic development tool” that can help attract new business to the City.

“You can lure in new restaurants who wouldn’t even consider opening in a dry community,” he said.  “Oak Park residents are not opposed to drinking.  But when they go out now, they are spending their money in other cities to do it. That’s tax revenue going elsewhere.”

The interest in changing the city charter to allow alcohol sales pre-dates Tungate’s leadership, but he is excited about seeing the process move forward.

Serving alcohol in Oak Park actually has two components, because the requirements to sell beer and wine are separate from those needed to serve liquor.

“The City Attorney has determined that there is nothing in the city charter prohibiting a business from obtaining a tavern license, which allows them to sell beer and wine,” Tungate said.  “The sale of spirits, liquor, requires a Class C license and that that would require a change to the City Charter, which can only be done by a vote of the people.”

Tavern Licenses

Although there is not a chartered-in restriction to tavern licensing, it hasn’t been done before in the city.  There are several steps that need to be implemented before tavern licenses can be issued. Determining its legality was the first step. But without any history or experience in issuing the licenses, Oak Park must come up with an application process for interested businesses.  Another barrier is the City’s current zoning does not address the issue of tavern licenses and where they may or may not be permitted.

Tungate said that members on a Planning Commission subcommittee have been fleshing out what zoning ordinance changes would be required, and that the Planning Commission is expected to vote on these changes in January.  Once the Planning Commission makes recommendations on where tavern licenses should be allowed, the City Council will vote.

“There is no legal opposition to issuing a tavern license, we just need to get the zoning ordinances in place,” Tungate said.  “Oak Park residents are not opposed to responsible consumption of alcohol..they just don’t want to see this community become a haven for night clubs that being in the wrong element”
Class C Licenses

A bigger hill to climb is making it legal to serve liquor.  Liquor and spirits require a Class C license, issued by the state.  However, because prohibition is written into the charter, it requires a vote of the people to change it.  This had not always been a popular idea.  In 2004 the city annexed land from Royal Oak Township, and two establishments on that land had to stop selling alcohol because voters did not approve a ballot measure to allow bar and restaurant liquor sales.  The businesses closed up and moved out of town.  Other attempts at a public vote have failed as well, though Tungate is hopeful.

“We’ve never really talked about this from an economic development standpoint,” Tungate said.  “This can bring jobs and business to the city.  There will always be some opposition.  People who think that alcohol brings crime or problems, but every city around us has it.  It does not pose any more of a public safety threat because it is already available, and our Public Safety chief has even said that at our meetings.”

The Petition

Saad and Zeana Attisha, owners of Sahara Restaurant at 2770 Coolidge, have long wanted to be able to serve wine and spirits at their restaurant.  Saad first opened his restaurant in Ferndale in 1980, but moved to Oak Park a couple of years later.  Periodically he would inquire with the former Mayor about getting the ordinance changed. He was told that the mayor was “working on it”, though nothing ever happened.  This year when new mayor Marian McClellan took office, the restaurant owners gained new hope.

“When Mayor McClellan had her swearing in, she and her supporters wanted to go out for dinner and drinks to celebrate.  They came here because they didn’t want to go outside of the city, but they couldn’t even have a toast,” Zeana said.

“People just want to be able to come in here and have a drink with their meal.  We have many many loyal customers, but on Friday nights, it’s dead.  On Valentine’s Day, it’s dead.  Not everyone who drinks is out to party.  A lot of people want to be able to go out and have a nice time and have a drink with their meal.”

With encouragement by McClellan, Zeana began researching the procedure for change, and even hired a lawyer to help.  After learning that a tavern license was possible, she applied directly to the state.  The license has been approved, and she is just waiting for the city to go through the zoning process.  But the tavern license will only allow Sahara to sell beer and wine.  So they are going further and have started a petition to put the liquor issue on the ballot.

They began the process last May and got the petition approved at the end of July.  In order to get the issue on the ballot they need to collect 3,600 signatures.  They have passed that amount and then some, with over 4,200 signatures collected.  The signatures have not been turned in or validated yet, because there is a question as to whether it would go on the August ballot or the November ballot.  Zeana prefers a November ballot because it would bring a higher turnout, and is waiting on a determination by the City Attorney before turning the signatures in.  City Council could also vote to put it on the ballot if they chose.

“This would help our business, but it would also bring more business in to Oak Park and it would increase commercial property values,” Zeana said.  “Other businesses have moved out of Oak Park, but we have been here 28 years.  This feels like home. We’re not just going to leave. We’re going to keep working to make it better for everyone.”

The Attisha Family also owns Sahara Restaurant in Farmington Hills, and has a Sahara franchised out in Shelby.  They are in the process of opening a new location in Sterling Heights which is already approved for the Class C license.

To find out more about the petition, follow Sahara Restaurant on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/sahararestaurantandgrill. To learn more about the City of Oak Park visit http://www.oakpark-mi.com/.

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