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Township's last liquor license in limbo


Board members say they'd prefer to grant license to business with more 'economic benefit' to township



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May 05, 2010 - Michael Becker got a little choked up Monday as it became clear he wouldn't get his liquor license. Not tonight.

"It's always been a dream of mine to make this business successful," said Becker, who opened Pizzariffic on Baldwin Road in Orion Township about two years ago, and recently made a request for the township's last available Class C liquor license. "I'm willing to do anything necessary to accomplish it."

But the Orion Township Board of Trustees voted 5-1 in favor of a 90-day postponement on the decision. John Steimel cast the dissenting vote, but made no comments during the discussion.

The township, like other municipalities, is limited to a set number of licenses issued through the Liquor Control Commission's Population Quota System. Orion currently has 33 active licenses; the Village of Lake Orion has nine.

Becker, who paid the township a nonrefundable $1,000 application fee, told the board he currently works for Chrysler during the day, but arrives at the restaurant at 4 p.m. each day and works until closing.

Essentially, he noted, he's dumped his life savings into the business, and would like to oblige customers who've requested the addition of beer and wine to complement meals.

"I cannot vote in favor of a liquor license for Pizzariffic because it is no economic benefit to the township." -- JoAnn Van Tassel, Orion Township Trustee
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"(The restaurant) is the most important thing in my life right now," he said. "I'm just straddling; I've yet to make any profit, I'm just paying my bills…but I truly believe the addition of wine and beer would put me over the edge."

But some members of the board said they preferred to hold the license for an unknown, yet-to-arrive business with the potential to dump more tax revenue into township coffers.

"I am concerned we have but one license," said Trustee JoAnn Van Tassel. "I am concerned about the economic benefit of that license to the township, and with a number of different restaurants making inquires about locating here, adding tax base. At this point in time I cannot vote in favor of a liquor license for Pizzariffic because it is no economic benefit to the township."

Van Tassel said she didn't believe value on Becker's real or personal property was likely to increase because a liquor license is issued, and noted she had other concerns as well.

"Are there other restaurants in this area that would like a liquor license?" Van Tassel said. "If we're going to actively consider granting a license, then anyone who has an interest ought to be given an equal opportunity."

But Becker's attorney, Christy Pudyk, noted she'd previously inquired whether any other applications were pending. The reply from township staff: 'no.'

Even if others were interested, Pudyk wondered where they were.

"We got on the agenda," she said. "They didn't. And they didn't put the money forth and they didn't call the State of Michigan to say 'Are there any licenses left' and they didn't call your offices to say 'Are there any licenses left?' And they didn't spend money on an attorney and they didn't spend the thousand dollars to pay your fee."

Pizzariffic, she told the board, is a family-oriented sports-themed takeout and sit-down brick-oven pizzeria and Italian eatery.

Becker, she continued, supports Lake Orion Girls Softball League, Lake Orion Dance club, LOHS Senior All-night Party and used Orion Township contractors to build the restaurant portion of the business. He and his mother invested $170,000 initially, and another $80,000 to obtain additional space for sit-down seating.

"He's a strong member of the community," Pudyk said. "He was born and raised in the community and lives in (Orion Township) currently.

Pudyk also noted 33 licenses are currently escrowed in Oakland County, and while Becker can't afford the cost, those licenses are available to other businesses.

"Mr. Becker is standing before you pleading with you," she told the board. "He is giving the township a chance, and hoping you will give him a chance."

But Supervisor Matthew Gibb said the license was a valuable tool for the township.

"We're trying to have every conceivable benefit (for) anyone who wants to reinvest or invest into the community," Gibb said. "When you say 'A franchise could afford to buy an escrowed license,'...those companies aren't out there, there aren't chain franchise restaurants looking Orion's way. What we do have is homegrown home-based businesses looking at Orion right now."

Holding the license out as a proverbial carrot, he said, could entice a business to set up shop in Orion.

On the other hand, allowing the license to go to an existing business could cause the township to lose a valuable asset, Gibb said.

"We can use it to attract someone else to replace that 200 million plus in taxable value we lost in the last 12 months," adding that neighboring Carrie Lee's "didn't exactly get a license overnight in this town."

"Carrie Lee's had to establish themselves as a specific sit-down tableside restaurant for a number of years before this township said the value of the license was substantial enough to forgo another potential investment," he said.

Theresa Becker told the board she found the arguments "very confusing."

"It's sort of a bizarre logic," she said, noting both she and her son have lived in Orion some 45 years and have "contributed to the community in many, many ways."

"I'm hearing that, because we have invested, it works against us," she continued. "If we were new people who were going to invest, it would work for us. It's a shame when members who've been part of a community as long as we have feel like they would have fared better if they'd been strangers."

Trustee Neal Porter said he didn't necessarily agree with Gibb and Van Tassel, but would like some questions answered before making a decision on the issue.

"I do agree that some of these people who have been here and invested money should be recognized, and I do not agree with Matt (Gibb) that it has to be someone new," Porter said.

Trustee Mark Crane concurred.

" As an attorney running a law firm, my focus has to be on satisfying existing clients prior to trying to bring in new clients," he said. "The idea that someone outside the community is more important than...someone who's in the community, who's taken a chance on the community and put their money where their mouth is – personally, I'd be inclined to approve this."

As an alternative, the board suggested Becker and his attorney look into obtaining a "resort license" from the state.

"A resort license is not subject to our quota and it's limited to beer and wine sales," said township attorney Dan Kelly. "It's a different application process."

But according to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission publication "Michigan Liquor Laws & Rules: Guide for Retail Liquor Licensees," published August 2009, a resort license can be issued to a business designed to attract and accommodate tourists and visitors to the area, and is only available after all licenses available under the quota have been issued and there are no escrowed on-premises licenses readily available for sale in the county where the proposed licensed business is located.

The issue will return to the board for a vote within 90 days.

Lake Orion Review Editor
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