T or C’s brewery success spurs talk of liquor law remix

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Local beer and live music helped revive downtown Truth or Consequences.

Now state lawmakers are wondering if similar ingredients can help Main Streets in smaller cities across New Mexico.

Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. opened about a year ago, offering its own line of beers made on site. Some lawmakers say the accessibility of a small brewer’s license is an example of what they’d like to see built into other parts of New Mexico’s complex system of liquor licenses. (Courtesy of Marianne Blaue)

embers of a legislative committee agreed this summer to take a look at New Mexico’s complex system of liquor licenses, along with other ideas to help downtowns, with an eye on proposing changes in the 2019 session.

hey highlighted the Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. as an example of the power of offering visitors an “Oasis Ale” or “Hot Springs Lager” – local beers on tap in TorC.

The new brewery is so successful that other businesses are staying open later to take advantage of the extra traffic, and the establishment has emerged as a venue for live music, Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said in an interview.

“What it’s done for the downtown area is amazing,” she said.

Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. has helped revitalize the city’s small downtown with beer and bands. State lawmakers are looking for ways to help other downtowns across New Mexico.

The brewery benefited from state help, underscoring the possibility that the idea might be replicated in other parts of New Mexico.

About $125,000 in state funding helped renovate a building for Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. under the Local Economic Development Act – making it one of about a half dozen breweries or distilleries from Silver City to Santa Fe to benefit from the program over the past three years.

And the brewery was able to avoid the need for a full liquor license, in part, because it makes its own beer on site.

It’s an example, some lawmakers say, of the flexibility they’d like to see extended to other parts of New Mexico’s complex liquor license system.

A small brewer’s license, of course, isn’t an option for, say, a restaurant that simply wants to offer margaritas made with tequila. The sale of whiskey, vodka and other spirits requires a different license that’s more difficult to get.

But several lawmakers said small towns might benefit from making the full license more accessible, partly because the full licenses are largely concentrated in New Mexico’s largest cities.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, put it this way: No one should have to drink a margarita made with wine.

Often, he said, chain restaurants – a Chili’s or Applebee’s, for example – are the only ones in smaller cities that can afford the liquor license that allows the sale of cocktails made with spirits. That’s a turnoff, he said, for tourists who might be looking for a local restaurant with New Mexico drinks.

“People will travel to go have a drink and a steak,” House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said in a recent meeting of the Legislature’s Economic and Rural Development Committee. “The big box restaurants, they can afford it, but the mom-and-pop restaurant that’s a good steak house isn’t able to do it.”

Sharer said Farmington’s downtown has unique old buildings and the potential to draw people in who want to experience Navajo culture. But it doesn’t attract tourists and out-of-town visitors the way Durango – an hour north, in Colorado – does, they said.

“All over New Mexico,” Sharer said, “we’ve got small towns that are dying.”

Quota system

Revitalizing downtowns, of course, isn’t a problem anyone expects to be solved through alcohol sales alone.

But some lawmakers say New Mexico’s complex system of liquor licenses – which limits the supply of certain kinds of licenses – doesn’t help.

Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said that a disproportionate number of full “dispenser” licenses – allowing the sale of spirits – are in the state’s largest cities. A quota system developed in the 1980s caps the number of certain licenses, making them extremely expensive, he said.

In some cases, it can cost $250,000 to $1 million to buy a license from someone willing to sell, Griggs said.

For a national chain, Griggs said, that could be “the difference between coming to Alamogordo or not coming to Alamogordo.”

And if a national restaurant does build in a small town, he said, that puts pressure on local restaurants that might not have the money to buy a competing license.

Griggs has repeatedly introduced legislation aimed at revising New Mexico’s liquor license system. He’d like to make the system more flexible so it’s easier for people to do business and meet customer demand.

But people who own one of the limited liquor licenses, naturally, don’t want to see their investment damaged.

“Finding the right answer has been really difficult,” Griggs said.

State Rep. Debbie Rodella, an Española Democrat who serves as chairwoman of the Economic and Rural Development Committee, said she will add the issue to the committee’s agenda ahead of the 2019 legislative session.

Montoya, the representative from Farmington, suggested the next session is the right time to consider the liquor license system.

“In election years,” he said, “everybody’s afraid to touch the subject.”

The Martinez administration, in turn, says the state has already made a variety of changes – including to the liquor license system – to help small breweries, wineries and distilleries.

‘Feels energetic’

The increased business activity in Truth or Consequences has the attention of state officials.

“Truth or Consequences Brewing has transformed downtown” TorC, said Mark Roper of the state Economic Development Department.

Truth or Consequences is about 75 miles north of Las Cruces, near Elephant Butte reservoir and Spaceport America. It has a collection of hot springs.

The town is named after a 1940s and ’50s radio quiz show, “Truth or Consequences.” The show mixed trivia questions with embarrassing stunts.

Marianne Blaue, owner of Truth or Consequences Brewing, which opened last year, said the state’s economic development grant helped renovate a building in the core of the city, ensuring the brewery didn’t have to build a new structure. Her company had to commit to creating eight to 10 manufacturing jobs over five years or “clawback” provisions will kick in.

In the meantime, she said, the live music, neon lights and on-street parking have helped make for a livelier downtown.

“It just feels energetic,” Blaue said in an interview. “You can tell people are out and things are happening.”