(Note: This is the second installment of our “Booze Wars” series, an ongoing series about the legislature’s attempts to limit competition in the sale of alcoholic beverages in Wisconsin. You can read our first installment here.)
Wisconsin’s event barn owners and operators are unhappy about the direction of a legislative study committee on the state’s alcohol distribution laws so far. These “wedding barn operators,” as they’re commonly known, have good reason to be concerned.
The chairman of the 2018 Legislative Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement, Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), is a former president of the Wisconsin Tavern League, and he’s determined to crack down on the competition. The committee is largely stacked in the Tavern League’s favor and not one event barn owner is a member of the committee.
At stake is a provision in the state law which allows these rural wedding venues to have alcohol on the premises for guests without having a liquor license. Wedding barns can allow alcohol to be served as long as the event is a private event and the wedding barn operators do not sell the alcohol – it must be purchased by the hosts of the private event.
The Legislative Council Study Committee will be meeting again on Wednesday. When the committee reconvenes, it will be hearing from the WATA for the first time. However, Swearingen has stacked the testimony by also adding three agricultural venue operators that are not working farms who also have liquor licenses for their venues.
Earlier this month, we spoke with a number of farmers who own these event barns and learned about their concerns about what Swearingen and his committee might propose, especially after some of the misinformation at the last committee meeting in July.
Sheila Everhart, the president of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association (WATA) and the owner of Everhart Farms, said there are already laws that cover many of the concerns of some of the committee members, which she plans to share with the committee at their next meeting.
“Wisconsin has an Ag tourism limited liability law that many of our members are covered under,” Everhart said. “We’re going to share with them the fire inspections, occupancy limits, fire extinguishers, all of the criteria. We’re going to look at parking. Our venues are required to have off-road parking. And that’s all part of the conditional use permit.”
Everhart’s organization represents over 150 members. There are approximately 250 event barn venues in Wisconsin and they generate $120 million in economic activity annually, according to a study the organization conducted, based upon an average of $20,000 per wedding.
Everhart said that her members are subject to local noise laws and laws governing the hours of operation. As for those barn event operations that are not following the laws, Everhart said local law enforcement should handle it.
Jean Bahn of the Farmview Event Barn in Berlin, WI questioned if Swearingen and other members of the committee had even been in a wedding barn after they questioned the safety of holding a catered event at these agricultural venues.
“I frankly don’t know what bride would rent a place that had ‘holes in the floor’ and ‘bird droppings all over the table,’” Bahn said. “It just doesn’t makes sense to me for them to say that’s what wedding barns are. It’s a huge investment in making sure our buildings are safe.”
Bahn also explained that some of the committee members were just simply wrong about claiming these event barns were unlicensed by the local municipality.
“The first step was to get permitted by my township, by my county,” Bahn said. “They’re implying that the entire community are just fly-by-night.”
Bahn pointed out that the county also tightly regulates her hours and her facilities.
Sara Haase of the Croix-View Farm said she requires her guests to use her preferred vendor, a licensed bartending service, for serving alcohol at events at her location. Like the other event barn operators, she doesn’t sell the alcohol as she doesn’t have a liquor license. The events at her location are private parties. The licensed bartender is required by Haase to check the ID of everyone and mark the hands of those that are legally able to be served alcohol.
“If you do not have an ID, she will not serve you,” Haase said. “I just went to that for the safety of our neighbors, for safety for our best interests, and because I think it’s just a smart thing to do.”
Haase also had to go through a permit process with her county before she could open her farm up to having events. The barn events cannot go past midnight, with music and the bar service ending before 11:30.
As for the safety and sanitary standards of her event barn, Haase says her operation is a lot better than many of the bars in Wisconsin.
“There are a lot of bars that are just as unsanitary as a barn, if not more so,” Haase said. “I’ve been in bars where there are dogs wandering around and they serve food. And I’m thinking how in the heck is this up to code?”
Haase said there are bad operators on both sides and it would be unfair to allow those bad operations to be representative of the Tavern League members and the barn event operators as a whole.
Haase also said she didn’t know if there was even a liquor license available in her township for her to get. “If I wanted to be in the tavern business, I would have bought a tavern,” Haase said.
Mary Telfer owns The Gathering Barn in Ft. Atkinson. Despite already having a animal petting farm, Telfer also had to go through her county to get her place permitted to hold events. She said her operation falls under chapter 125 of state statutes like everyone else in the industry.
“We’re all following the law as the law is written,” Telfer said. “This doesn’t just affect weddings. I mean, I have a DNR event coming up next week. So it’s not just weddings. It’s graduation parties, baby showers, bridal showers, corporate picnics – all kinds of different functions.”
Telfer said many of these events want to have alcohol. “And now you’re saying we can’t do that?” Teifer asked. She said they use preferred vendors, too, that check the IDs of guests to make sure that nobody underage drinks at her events.
“As far as safety, I think you’re going to find that all of the barns have to jump through the hoops of zoning and conditional use in their area,” Telfer said. “Public safety is very important to all of us.”
Bonnie Keyes of Mulberry Farm operates a petting farm for children. She said she fell into the wedding barn business by accident when a local couple told her their wedding venue canceled on them, leaving them without a place to hold a wedding. The following year she had a few more weddings and soon it became an additional way to generate revenue to pay the mortgage.
Keyes said she had to go to Calumet County for approval of adding the wedding business to her petting farm.
“We already had to prove that we had insurance as a petting farm,” Keyes explained. “The only thing they did include now that the weddings were added was a yearly inspection by the fire chief.” The fire chief examined the exits and the capacity of the barn before requiring Keyes to add more fire extinguishers.
Telfer questioned the need for more regulation from the state.
“They’re looking at it as any place that’s paying to rent a venue,” Telfer said. “Let’s go broad here. You pay to go to a park shelter and rent a park shelter. And I’ve had plenty of friends that have got married at park shelters, and they’ve been able to bring their own alcohol into that park shelter. Are we going to say, wow, you can’t bring your alcohol anywhere anymore? At a private event?”
Telfer pointed out that the all of the events at these event barns are private.
“We’re not letting in the general public like a bar does,” Telfer said. “Private family events, or company picnics, or graduation parties – it’s all controlled by invite only.”
Bahn said Swearingen’s concern about the agricultural venues not operating on a “level playing field” with the members of the Tavern League are unfounded.
“We’re not a bar,” Bahn said. “We’re not open to the public, we’re not open seven days a week, we’re never going to be on a level playing field because we’re not the same thing.”
Telfer said that, unlike the taverns, the event barns don’t make money from the alcohol.
“Bars are charging for their alcohol. They’re making money,” Telfer said. “They’re making lots and lots of money. We’re giving up, oh anywhere from five to fifteen thousand dollars in revenue that we could be making off alcohol.”
Included in the economic activity generated by these agricultural event venues are the hotels, bars and restaurants in the community.
“We’re bring in people from all over the state, all over the country,” Telfer said. “These are people who aren’t normally in our state but they’re spending revenue because they are in our state.”
Bahn said that local businesses benefit from the events at her location.
“I have had so many local, small-town vendors that are very appreciative that they’re able to be used and have more business as a result of a venue in their area,” Bahn said.
The barn event owners agreed that they would not be the only ones hurt if the legislature managed to find a way to shut down many of these agricultural event venues. It would hurt many businesses in their community as well.
“They are hurting the caterers because they’re going to lose so much business,” Telfer said. “They’re hurting the liquor stores. They’re hurting the liquor stores that have huge trailers – I mean that some liquor stores have 30 mobile trailers that come out to the different facilities. They’re hurting the florists. They’re hurting all these people that have income trickle down into our community.”
Telfer also said that the taverns benefit from these events at their venues, too,
“When they get done at my place, they go to the taverns,” Telfer said. “Because the taverns are open to 2:00. So we’re generating business that wouldn’t be in our town, wouldn’t be in our community. We’re sending them for their after party to your taverns in town.”
Keyes said her preferred alcohol provider has 18 trailers that serve wedding venues. Ironically, he is a liquor store owner that’s a member of the Tavern League. However, if she’s forced to get a liquor license, she will, and she’ll use it, too.
“So if we’re going to have to go through the hassle of having walk-in coolers and liquor inventory, we’re going to capitalize on that,” Keyes said. “So instead of sending them to the corner bar at 11:00, we’ll probably keep them. Friday night instead of sending them to the supper clubs for dress rehearsal, we’ll probably keep them. As long as I have a liquor license now, I’m going to have weekday events to capitalize on that. So instead of the local bars making the money, I’m going to do what I can to take the money.”
Everhart questioned why some in the legislature are trying to shut down a thriving industry. “It’s almost like comparing Amazon to retail sales,” Everhart said. “Are we going to target and eliminate Amazon because people’s taste changes, their shopping experiences have changed?”