- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - While Jacksonville’s local craft beer industry continues to flourish, several entrepreneurs faced difficulties opening breweries near the city’s urban core because of a decades-old law that bans alcohol sales near churches or schools.

Unique, historic buildings and the prospect of moving into up-and-coming neighborhoods, like Springfield and New Town, attracted microbreweries to areas near downtown. The establishments brew craft beer and run tap rooms, where patrons can buy beer to take home or drink it on site.

But many of those same areas are home to a number of churches, creating a large swath of land shielded by the city’s prohibition of alcohol sales within 1,500 feet of a church or school.

Business owners can apply for a waiver to the rule, and the city has been lenient allowing breweries to open near churches. Still, neighboring churches and council members who oppose the breweries have tried to run interference.

Last May, several council members staged a last-minute move to delay approving a waiver for a brewery that wanted to open on Myrtle Avenue just north of downtown although they failed to convince their colleagues to delay the vote.

The brewery, Engine 15, opened recently.

The council is now considering two more waivers for breweries that want to open in Springfield.

One brewery, Main and Six Brewing, has waited months for its application to be approved. Some of the delay has been brought by Councilman Reginald Gaffney, who opposes breweries opening near churches, while an error in the company’s application has added more time. The error was found by another opponent of the brewery.

Both owners say they want to join the ongoing revival of Springfield and wouldn’t want to move anywhere else in town. They say their businesses will add a jolt of economic development and culture into the neighborhood, filling empty buildings as well as a demand for craft breweries within walking distance for residents.

But opponents of their plans, who have spoken during council meetings, say the drinking establishments will erode the family-friendly atmosphere of their churches. They even say the breweries will aggravate social problems the neighborhood has long struggled with, like alcoholism and prostitution, although they provide no examples of that happening near other breweries in Jacksonville.

Brewery owners say those fears are unfounded and that it’s unfair to compare their businesses to nightclubs or full-liquor bars.

Instead, they say microbreweries are much different. They’re legally restricted from selling hard liquor and will have earlier closing times, which they say attracts customers more interested in trying varieties of house-made beers rather than those simply trying to get drunk.

“The type of people that frequent breweries aren’t the type of people that frequent a nightclub or bar,” said Dennis Espinosa, co-founder of Main and Six Brewing. “There’s got to be some room or grey area to see the difference between hardcore drinking establishments.”

Despite efforts to spread that message, members of nearby churches aren’t buying the pitch.

“I don’t know how this pub would help our community,” said Gail Hill, a member of the Westside Church of Christ. “There isn’t a day where we open that building where we’re not dealing with homelessness, alcoholism, prostitution . We don’t need anyone else moving in and enhancing it.”

Brewery foes found a champion in Gaffney.

After city staffers preliminary OK’d the plans for Espinosa’s brewery, Gaffney fought to hold up their application. Gaffney successfully delayed their approval by two weeks, but his pleas for an indefinite delay were ignored.

While Gaffney failed to further delay Espinosa’s application, he encountered another setback last month. Because of an error by surveyors, his application failed to include three churches that were close by.

That oversight pushed back the final vote on their application until later this month.

The further his application is delayed, the more concerned Espinosa becomes. He cannot close on the sale of the building he wants to move into until his plans are approved. As time goes on, he worries that the building’s owner may sell to another buyer.

“We’ve invested quite a deal of money,” Espinosa said. “That’s a big stress. You run the risk of upsetting the seller, and then you’re completely out.”

After Espinosa faced opposition, many Springfield residents came to his defense and said his business is what Springfield needs to fully become a thriving neighborhood.

Even Gaffney changed his stance. While he’s still concerned about a high number of drinking establishments opening in Springfield, he said he’s likely to support both breweries in a “very neutral way.”

In return, he said he’d like the businesses to contribute to youth programs of nearby churches.

“I do believe those breweries will transform that community,” Gaffney said. “I understand what the churches are saying. I also realize it’s my job to bring development to that community.”

Espinosa said getting a waiver from the city’s alcohol ban near churches has made it challenging to move into Springfield. He’s dedicated to moving there, but he said other start-ups may simply look for other areas of town that have fewer obstacles.

“Without a question, these are old-fashioned rules,” Espinosa said. “I think the city understands we could be a destination spot (for craft beer). Maybe they can revisit these rules and laws regarding zoning. Let’s relax some of these things.”

Owners of Hyperion Brewing Company, the other brewery that wants to open in Springfield, have paid close attention to Espinosa’s application. Despite Espinosa’s challenges, Hyperion’s co-founder Alexandra McKeown said she’s still optimistic her plan will be approved.

McKeown said she understands why the restrictions on alcohol sales are in place and appreciates the churches’ concerns. She doesn’t mind applying for the waiver and explaining her business to worried residents, but she’s frustrated by those running political interference.

“If I was an outsider, and I didn’t know anything about the culture of craft beer, I would be worried to,” McKeown said. “On the other side, people choosing to be political for the sense of being political seems illogical and unnecessary . Is it frustrating to see the process delayed to make someone’s constituents happy? Yes. And is that fair? Probably not.”

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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com


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