Special liquor licenses helped revive Valpo's downtown

Connor Mohlke, 3, and his mother, Meredith, of Valparaiso, enjoy some gazpacho before the main course at Don Quijote restaurant in downtown Valparaiso. Don Quijote has been in business for 28 years, and it was one of the first to obtain one of 10 special downtown historical district licenses when they became available in 2005.

VALPARAISO | The City Council's endorsement of a liquor license for the Main and Lincoln restaurant July 22 marked the end of an eight-year effort to find suitable takers for the 10 special downtown historical district licenses granted the city by the state Legislature.

The licenses have helped transform the downtown into a dining destination, and — combined with other improvements such as Central Park Plaza, streetscape improvements, facade grants and additional events organized by Valparaiso Community Festivals and Events — have revived the city's center.

"There was a point when we had a 30 to 40 percent vacancy rate in the downtown," former councilman Chuck Williams said.

Williams is credited with the idea of making the city a dining destination by creating the special low-cost liquor licenses. He said the idea began in 1999, when he was renovating his own downtown building and bringing in Buffalo Wild Wings.

He said the restaurant delayed its opening until it could get a regular liquor license.

"It's very helpful to have a liquor license to be competitive," Williams said. "I came up with the idea, and the city liked it. Without them buying into it, it never would have happened. Councilman Jan Dick was the one that got behind it early, and we went to the Legislature together with the mayor and were able to do this."

He said the original legislation didn't have a limit on the number of licenses the city could have at its disposal downtown. At some point, an arbitrary number of 10 was set in committee, but Williams said 10 restaurants in a four-block area is a lot.

"Downtown Valpo would not be what it is today without it," he said. "I was accused of getting them for myself, but I never had an interest in it."

Dick said two studies of the downtown by HyettPalma consultants during the last decade or so have said the city "can't be everything to everybody" and should instead concentrate on things it does have. At the time of the first study, it had some restaurants.

"Now we have a plethora of nice restaurants," Dick said. "I'm a little surprised it took this long (to issue all 10), but it has worked very well. It has attracted people to Valparaiso, and some of the highest-priced real estate in Northwest Indiana is in our downtown."

The success of the revitalization of the downtown has created a parking problem, but Dick said he wouldn't mind seeing a few more restaurants.

"I'm very proud of what we've done," he said. "We have attracted some fine restaurants, and that helps all the downtown. If you are a store selling anything, the traffic on the street is good. We have a parking problem, which, to some extent, is good."

City Administrator Bill Oeding said seeking additional licenses has been discussed, but "we need to have more debate."

"There's no question the liquor licenses were one of the major pieces to the puzzle of the downtown being successful, but there comes a point where it becomes saturated and it loses its value," Oeding said.

"Initially, I thought they would go pretty quickly, but, when you stop and look at it, it takes awhile to come up with investors, a menu, locations, kitchens — and we were doing part of it during tough economic times," he said. "It's a huge cost, and it is a small business trying to come up with the funds to develop a restaurant, and it is not easily done.

"We couldn't be as successful as we are without it. But we couldn't have been as successful without all the other things, too," Oeding said. "All the pieces coming together have made it work."

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