SALT LAKE CITY: Utah is easing its liquor laws to encourage tourism, but the state's most-visited city needs to prepare for a buzz kill: A review of state records shows that Utah is quickly running out of liquor licenses for bars and restaurants.
That means it could take much longer to create a downtown entertainment district craved by some local officials in Salt Lake City, the state's capital and economic and cultural center.
State lawmakers, most of whom are Mormon and do not drink, limit the number of bars and restaurants that can serve liquor based on the state's population.
Currently, no more than 361 bars can open in Utah and no more than 546 restaurants can serve beer, wine and liquor.
After awarding several licenses last week, only 12 liquor licenses remain for bars and 15 remain for restaurants in the entire state.
Once Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officials receive new population figures in June, the number of available licenses could drop significantly because of previous overestimations.
The dwindling supply of licenses is a direct threat to Mayor Ralph Becker's goal of creating a bustling downtown nightlife district. Downtown Salt Lake City has plenty of bars, clubs and restaurants, but finding and getting to them can be a nightmare for tourists thanks to a decades-old city ordinance that limits the number of bars to two on each block-long stretch of street.
Becker is seeking to lift the two-bar limit so existing pockets of nightlife - however small - can continue to grow on the heels of a major change in state law. Effective July 1, customers will no longer have to fill out an application and pay a fee to enter a bar.
The change could allow Salt Lake City to operate in a manner similar to the resort town of Park City, where the historic Main Street is lined with bars, restaurants and - most importantly during ski season - people.
Becker says he'll introduce a Salt Lake proposal by the end of the year, but by then every available liquor license could already be snapped up. New licenses would only become available as existing ones are forfeited or the population grows.
"I hope we don't miss this window," said City Councilman Luke Garrott, a University of Utah political science professor who favours lifting the two-bar limit.
The Utah Hospitality Association, which represents the state's bar industry, calls the state's quota system "completely arbitrary" and is considering asking the Legislature to amend it when it convenes in January.
Becker, the former House minority leader, also said he's willing to lobby lawmakers on the issue. He says Salt Lake City shouldn't be hamstrung in its efforts to create a vibrant downtown.
However, it's unclear how much of an appetite conservative state lawmakers will have to revisit liquor laws. Many only agreed to the recent changes because they were assured it wouldn't result in any more bars opening up.
The state is also on the verge of losing its biggest booster for liquor law changes to improve tourism: Gov. Jon Huntsman. The Republican has been tapped by President Barack Obama to be the next U.S. ambassador to China and will likely leave before the Legislature convenes in January.
While Utah is becoming more accommodating to those who drink alcohol, tourism leaders say the lack of a concentrated nightlife district is still a problem for visitors, who quickly become frustrated wandering long distances in search of a place to eat or get a drink.
Garrott, the city councilman, said the city's unique cultural makeup as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is partly responsible for the city's current restrictions, which he believes need to change along with the city.
"Salt Lake City has to change," he said. "It's not a city of saints and sinners any more. Most of us want the free choice that modern society offers and that means there's a lot more potential for consensus. It's a much more cosmopolitan place than it was even 10 years ago."