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Whistler gets political over liquor licenses

Politicians and organizers try for 11th hour save to get booze at Jazz on the Mountain festival

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By Alison Taylor and Stephen Smysnuik

Whistler's politicians are putting pressure on the province to allow special booze rules for local festivals and events.

As the political pressure ramps up organizers of the much-anticipated first-ever Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler (JOMAW) festival are also considering legal action to reverse an 11 th hour decision by the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB) that does not allow a Special Occasion License (SOL) for "stadium licensing" for the September long weekend event.

"I think sending the message to the world that we are the most primitive liquor regulators on the planet is not a good thing for B.C.," said JOMAW organizer and founder Arnold Schwisberg.

Organizers of the GranFondo, set for the weekend after the jazz festival, have also been denied a similar license despite having been granted one in 2010.

"I think it's time for us to make a political move on this," said Councillor Chris Quinlan at Tuesday's council meeting.

"It's endemic of a much larger problem."

Schwisberg asked the LCLB for a special license that would allow festival-goers to purchase and consume alcohol throughout Whistler Olympic Plaza, allowing adults and minors to enjoy the show together, similar to what's allowed at a stadium hockey game. It was denied. He was given a SOL for a much smaller fenced-in "beer garden."

Schwisberg blasted the LCLB's "archaic" decision as being out of touch with policies nationwide. He pointed to the decision made by the Ontario government in June to modernize its liquor laws, which abolished the need for roped off beer tents at festivals and events.

Schwisberg - a practicing liquor lawyer in both B.C. and Ontario - said that since then, there hasn't been a single alcohol-related public safety issue.

"This is a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "This is not an adequately considered answer. It is an unreasonable condition. It is an improper exercise of their jurisdiction."

In an email to Pique , a ministry spokesperson wrote that they denied the license because "harder to control" events, where people carry liquor throughout the venue, have higher risks associated with them.
"Unlike permanently licensed establishments with trained staff and servers, SOL's are staffed largely by volunteers who are usually not trained in Responsible Beverage Service (RBS)," the letter said. "Even when licensed security guards are hired, they are generally not trained in RBS and their focus is on maintaining crowd control rather than the control of liquor."
It also stated that minors' access to liquor is a public safety issue because, "when minors drink, they are vulnerable to vehicle crashes, sexual assault, fighting and alcohol poisoning."
Organizers of September's GranFondo road biking race have only been approved for a beer garden, effectively separating participants from their families who have come to support them.
"That type of license arrangement is not consistent with the philosophical concepts of our event," said GranFondo co-founder Neil McKinnon. "Our event is about inclusion, bringing people together, comraderie and family and we feel that having a fenced area that separates celebrating spouses from waiting families is inconsistent."
McKinnon expressed his disappointment with the decision, particularly in light of the fact that last year they secured a special license allowing minors and adults to be together in a licensed area at Lot 4.
"As we look to grow and expand this brand we have to look at communities across Canada that fit the philosophical integrity of our event," said a disappointed McKinnon.
Representatives for the Bearfoot Bistro, which puts on the annual Masqurave event at Cornucopia in November that also requires SOL's, declined to comment. They also need SOLs for their event.
Mayor Melamed said he is planning to call ministers directly and contact the provincial solicitor general, as well as meet with staff to determine the best course of action.
"I think what the suggestion is now is that the policy is perhaps ready for revision to be more enabling and more versatile for these types of events," said Melamed.
The festival is only days away, however.
Schwisberg's frustration was evident at Tuesday's council meeting when he attempted to explain the situation to council in more detail and was told by the mayor that it wasn't the appropriate forum.
"We are advocating on your behalf," said the mayor.
Schwisberg's response was:
"I have met with staff. That hasn't been effective."
He has made the decision that if he can't get stadium licensing, then there will be no liquor sales at all.
Schwisberg said that a beer garden would put them in a worse position financially than if they did away with booze sales altogether. There are variable costs attached to liquor service that remain the same regardless of the level of service, while the revenues have been sliced "half or worse" by having a designated beer garden.
"We don't say that you need a drink to enjoy the festival but a (non-alcoholic) alternative, and I'm not telling tales at a school here, is a much smaller margin product," he said.
He is hoping the community will get behind him and show its support.

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