After Denver rejects a liquor license for a new craft beer bar, the owners appeal to Governor Hickenlooper, brewer to brewer

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The owners of a proposed craft-beer bar along Seventh Avenue's restaurant row were shocked earlier this month when a hearing officer for the city of Denver's excise and license division suggested that their liquor license request be denied.

"There was no public opposition from nearby restaurants and bars. In fact, we received hearty support from most of the neighbors, who have an attitude of 'the more the merrier,'" says Robert Giaquinta, part of a group that had hoped to open Cold Comfort Tavern some time this year.

A representative for chef and restaurant owner Frank Bonanno, who owns two nearby places, supported Cold Comfort at the hearing, as did a manager for Govnr's Park.

In all, there were 181 people or businesses in favor of Cold Comfort receiving a license and 21 people or businesses who opposed it. But hearing officer Dante James cited a lack of parking and a large number of existing liquor licenses in the area, adding that Cold Comfort failed to show "a need" for a new one.

Excise and Licenses director Penny May says she can't comment until a final decision on the liquor license has been made; she will make that decision next week.

In the meantime, Giaquinta and company have written a letter to John Hickenlooper (co-founder of the Wynkoop Brewing Company), appealing directly to the new governor's brewing instincts. Will it work? Well, the Cold Comfort location, at 200 East Seventh Avenue, is just four blocks from the Governor's Mansion, so we shall see.

The text of that letter follows:

Governor Hickenlooper,

My fledgling small business is working to open a "craft beer" restaurant/bar, Cold Comfort Tavern, in Denver. We have applied for a Hotel and Restaurant liquor license in the Governor's Park neighborhood at 7th and Sherman. We received notice last week that this application was denied by Dante James and Penny May at the Department of Excise and Licenses.

As Governor, you have prioritized issues that our project makes concrete. In your inaugural address last Tuesday, you stated, "Our first task, our highest priority, is jobs," and that we must "unleash the entrepreneurial spirit that has always defined Colorado through her history." This Monday you said that "Small businesses don't have the capacity to deal with red tape...There's a boundary between appropriate regulation and when that regulation gets to become red tape."

Our project will create jobs for local people. We will require all of the staffing needs that you would expect for a tavern as well as create supplementary needs for cleaning, maintenance, etc. We will renovate an existing 5,200 square foot former dry cleaning building, installing a kitchen, bar, and outdoor patio -- bringing back to life a dark, underutilized corner in a great neighborhood.

As small business entrepreneurs, we have financed this project with personal savings and family support. We have already invested tens of thousands of dollars in architectural, legal, licensing, and other fees. We have spent over a year researching, planning, etc. We submitted our Liquor License application on 9/16/2010, and waited over three months for our hearing with the Dept of Excise and Licenses, who would give us no information regarding the likelihood of an approval.

As part of our due diligence, we obtained the support of the neighborhood, hosting an open meeting with the Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods Association at our proposed location. We presented our project and allowed local residents to discuss and debate, explicitly, their "need and desire" for our Tavern, as well as "health and welfare" issues such as parking, noise, and vandalism concerns. Ultimately a vote of residents in our licensing area resulted in 14 to 4 in support. An additional 15 individuals voted in support, and several local restaurateurs and business people, including Marty Jones, spoke on behalf of the "need" for a project like ours. The CHUN Board later voted unanimously to support our project and sent President Roger Armstrong as their representative to our Liquor License hearing. We also presented a formal petition with signatures from 148 local residences and 33 businesses in support of our project. We were fully confident that we had demonstrated overwhelming "desire and need" by residents.

However, the Hearing Officer recommended that our application for a Liquor License be denied. The decision states that Cold Comfort failed to demonstrate that there is reasonable "need" in the neighborhood and that there is no "adverse impact to the health or welfare of the neighborhood." The only opposition to appear at the hearing came from 4 individuals (and a 21 signature petition), who to the best of my knowledge, are professionals on the same block or across the street from our proposed location. They primarily cited possible parking, noise, and vandalism issues - none of which, according to the written decision itself, are allowed to be directly considered as evidence in a licensing hearing. We have shown evidence of available parking and local ordinances that control noise and illegal behavior. They also cited "saturation" of the area by liquor licenses, though the Licensing Board offers no definition of "saturation", and there are areas of Denver where new licenses have been issued that are significantly more "saturated."

You want to remove the "red tape" that hinders entrepreneurial small businesses in Colorado. We believe that this unwarranted decision by the License Department is a manifestation of that type of obstruction. The money that is risked in securing a property, working up floor plans, and hiring representation is significant, the time that is risked is even more painfully valuable. Yet the licensing process is opaque, slow, and ultimately the decision of a SINGLE individual. We have 10 days to submit an objection that goes back to that SAME individual. After that, the only recourse available is a suit in court, and just getting on the docket takes 6 to 9 months. A start-up like ours is hard-pressed to survive the time and money risked in a delay like that.

You reasserted at your inaugural that Colorado has "the best beer." Cold Comfort's vision is to promote that truth. Yet, because we want to sell beer, we are caught up in Denver's dark licensing gamble, and this is crippling our fledgling venture.

Follow Westword's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan.

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