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Friday, December 4, 2020

Northern Kentucky Cities Step Up to Support Area Restaurants and Bars

Fort ThomasCity Council recently passed a 12-month waiver on alcohol licensing fees to help support the hospitality sector of our community.

by Robin Gee, city council beat editor

As the pandemic rages on, the winter looks bleak for area restaurants and bars. In fact, everyone is bracing for impact as the number of COVID cases are on the rise after the Thanksgiving holiday. Hospitality businesses have faced renewed restrictions on service hours and, to top it off, they will take a hit as cold weather conditions force a reduction in service options.

With this in mind, Governor Andy Beshear announced the "Team Kentucky Food and Beverage Relief Fund" this week to provide some relief in the form of grants of up to $10,000 for individual restaurants and bars or $20,000 for entities operating more than one hospitality business. He released $40 million dollars for the program.

18 N. Fort Thomas Avenue. 

The money is going fast, however. As of Tuesday afternoon, only one day after his announcement, $1.7 million had been granted already. The Public Protection Cabinet reported they had received 2,650 applications for $25.6 million in assistance. Beshear urged area bars and restaurants to get their applications in. They can apply directly to the Food and Beverage Relief Fund.

Cities stepping up to help in any way they can

Early in November the governor also announced state-level retail liquor license fees would be waived for the next 12 months. The move provided some relief to area restaurants and bars, but Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce members wanted to take it a step further.

Kristen Baldwin, vice president of public affairs and communication for the chamber, and Courtney Kleier, public affairs manager, approached eight municipalities within the three Northern Kentucky counties to ask them to consider eliminating the fees locally.

"We wanted to get information to all the cities that they could do this, show them how other communities are doing this as well...Our business owners are proud and often don’t want to ask for help, so we wanted to step in on behalf of the business community and point this out," Baldwin said.

This would be a sacrifice, as many establishments have more than one type of license, and each license fee is between $1,000 and $1,800 a year depending on the type. Multiply that by the number of businesses, and it can be quite a chunk for cities to forego.

"And a thousand dollars here, a thousand dollars there, really adds up," noted Baldwin.

Investing in the future

Fort Thomas stepped up. At its November meeting, council members voted to eliminate retail drink and supplemental bar license fees for bars, restaurants and related hospitality businesses in the city. Alexandria followed suit at its council meeting with a similar move.

In fact, several Northern Kentucky cities have since eliminated the fees including Covington, Newport, Fort Wright, Independence and most recently Crestview Hills, while several others are taking up the issue at council meetings this month.

As noted, a bar or restaurant could hold a number of licenses — a regular license, an extended hours license allowing sales after midnight and a Sunday license. Due to restrictions, the businesses have not been able to take advantage of their extended licenses at all in recent months.

When people think of restaurant and bar businesses in Campbell County, Newport is the city that often comes first to mind, yet many other cities have a sizeable number of hospitality businesses, said Kleier.

"Newport would be taking on a much heavier cut to revenue than Alexandria, but it is still significant there. Anecdotally, officials in one of the smaller cities said the move will cost them about $16,000 in revenue. I was surprised it would cost them that much, but their area has a lot of corner bars and small restaurants," she said.

The size of the financial hit for cities depends, of course, on the size of the city and the type of business mix. And, while it is a sacrifice for any city budget, Kleier said she is happy and proud of area city officials who have stepped up in this way to support their business communities. In Newport, she said, the mayor and city commissioners told her they think of it more as an investment in the future of their city.

In Fort Thomas, she said, Mayor Eric Haas is a restaurant owner so he knows first-hand the hardships on that industry, but all the council members are in business and have been looking for ways they can help.

More options for cities to help

Baldwin and Kleier discussed other things cities can do to help support their business community. Relaxing code enforcement rules to allow signage for businesses in places where they might not have been permitted before can help. In Fort Thomas, code restrictions have been eased to allow some restaurants more space to expand their outdoor service.

"City managers, mayors and councils are having these honest dialogs about being creative about some codes that may have been enforced previously...And, during this time of the pandemic, asking what can they do to encourage businesses and to help them to attract customers that are driving by, walking by. Those things do make a difference," said Baldwin.

Some cities are looking at tax relief programs and business relief grants to help business in their communities, Kleier added.

"As a chamber, I think one of the things we are most excited about and most pleased with is that at this point in the pandemic...elected officials are going back to the drawing board and looking at how they can help these specific kinds of businesses," said Baldwin.

It’s definitely shaping up to be a "K-shaped" recovery, she said. Some businesses have been able to pivot and move operations into their employees’ living rooms and bedrooms, but for others, especially service industries, this is not an option. So for these businesses, city officials are trying be creative and looking at how to allocate whatever funds available to ensure that their businesses survive.


What can the community do to help area businesses?

Baldwin and Kleier said, with the holidays around the corner, they encourage people to continue to order and carry out food, get food delivered and consider buying gift cards — this brings in cash flow that restaurants and bars need.

"If your company normally has a business holiday party, think about what you can do to help the catering business you used, or if you usually btake your team out to a local restaurant, consider ordering delivery from that restaurant."

Meet NKY, an entity run by the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, is offering "Get Your Holiday On," a one-stop shop for gift cards from businesses throughout the area. Fort Thomas Matters has also provided a targeted list of carry out options in our city.

CARES Act funding has provided much-needed relief for city budgets. The good news also came down this week that the Kentucky Department for Local Government is releasing an additional $50 million in CARES Act funding to reimburse city and county governments for expenses related to COVID-19.

Governor Beshear recognized municipalities for their efforts to support their business communities and citizens. "Our local governments have been lifelines in communities during this pandemic," he said.

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