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Outdoor dining great idea, answers needed first



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Halverson (click for larger version)
January 18, 2012 | 07:36 AM
For once I agree with everyone.

The City Council is moving ahead with plans to allow outdoor dining in Lake Geneva. Potentially, it's a great move forward to make an already great tourism community an even better one. The current ordinance prohibiting outdoor "encroachments" is outdated and provincial.

I agree with Alderman Frank Marsala when he said, "I always thought this was a good idea. This is a summer resort town and it's a plus."

I agree with Alderman and restaurateur Tom Hartz when he said, "This adds more interest and is a way to make the Lake Geneva downtown more exciting."

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But let's stop for a moment before we get too deep.

Unfortunately, I also agree with Marsala when he questioned how many restaurants would be able to meet the specifications prescribed in the ordinance, which was first discussed at the Committee of the Whole meeting Jan. 3. Those specifications would prohibit tables within 5 feet of the curb and not allow for alcohol.

Alderman Terry O'Neill leaned toward allowing alcohol to be served during the daylight hours and restricted after 9 p.m. I'm inclined to agree, though I understand the potential problems. There is the legitimate concern that alcohol will be passed to underage drinkers outside the perimeter. That creates an enforcement challenge. But allowing alcohol is probably a way to truly realize the goal of the ordinance which is to encourage more of a tourist atmosphere. True, alcohol isn't necessary to have fun but for many people it can encourage the process. More specifically, it's what people hope for when they come to a lakeside resort community like Lake Geneva in the summer.

I recall very fondly a trip I took to Quebec City in Canada a few years ago when the outdoor dining areas seemed to outnumber the inside ones even though their tourist season is as seasonal as it is in Lake Geneva. Sipping wine while enjoying people watching, conversation and the summer breezes was one of the highlights of my trip.

It's natural for government bodies seeking compromise and inclusion to add more stipulations and conditions and exceptions. The more proposals are discussed and the more concerns that are brought up, the more particular an ordinance gets. Often that's a wise way to head off potential problems. I'm not sure I agree in this situation.

Sometimes allowing a broad interpretation is the only way to make an ordinance really work. Each proposal needs to have the end result in mind. In this case, that's making Lake Geneva even more attractive to visitors.

As Alderman Bill Mott said, "We wonder why it takes so long to get things done. We are nitpicking so much. Let's allow some creativity for these people."

The way to have your cake and eat it too is included in the ordinance's wording which says outdoor dining would be "a privilege and not a right." That's a way around the issue. If someone is abusing the privilege, pull their permit.

I'm not convinced I'm right about the alcohol provision. Just pulling a permit only deals with the problem after the offense has occurred. But I think there are enough reasons for the council to more thoroughly address the pros and cons.

Having said all of that, there's still a baseline question that hasn't been fully addressed.

Marsala was right in asking how many businesses would meet the 5-foot provision. Quebec City, which I alluded to before, has much wider pedestrian thoroughfares than Lake Geneva. Unless this question gets answered first and the end result envisioned, we shouldn't move forward.

The council will consider the idea again at a second reading Jan. 23. Hopefully, they can do the necessary homework in the meantime. I agree with Alderman Todd Krause when he said, "I am not convinced this will work, but I'd like to be proven wrong."

Halverson is the general manager of the Regional News.

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