Taking It Easy, Or Not 

Downtown venue takes battle with state cops to the Legislature

When New York-based Knitting Factory took over the Big Easy last year, it inherited the bickering between the club's previous owners and Alcohol Beverage Control. Now, Knitting Factory is attempting to resolve some of those issues through the Idaho Legislature. Their new tack is a bill that would redesignate the establishment from a restaurant classification to that of an events center.

Under current Idaho law, minors can enter the Big Easy because the establishment is classified as a restaurant. Without that label, the Big Easy is a bar open only to those age 21 and older. The proposed legislation would create an exception to the law for designated "events centers," which would permit the commingling of minors and those over drinking age. Several such exemptions already exist, allowing for larger events centers like the Qwest and Taco Bell arenas to serve liquor while still admitting minors.

At a Senate hearing last week, however, Knitting Factory and its Gallatin Group lobbyists were told that the current bill doesn't cut the mustard in its current form and that amendments will be needed to better define which Idaho establishments qualify as events centers.

"We are not trying to change the liquor laws in Idaho," said Morgan Margolis, Knitting Factory's vice president of West Coast operations. "We're trying to get the Big Easy—which is Knitting Factory now—defined under a different law than restaurant, because we're not a restaurant."

The head of ABC, Lt. Robert Clements, agreed with at least that part: The Big Easy bills itself first as a concert house, not as a restaurant.

According to Margolis, in order for the Big Easy to meet its restaurant qualifications, it either has to put itself forth as a restaurant or 38 percent of purchases must come from food or non-alcoholic beverages. Margolis said that or has been a point of contention between the Big Easy and ABC.

"I would love to sell more food. I have a full menu. I have a full kitchen. I'm paying a staff," Margolis said. "But the reality is it's a bad law because on December 29, anybody could go through their books and say, 'Hey, I'm not at 38 percent. Hello, Red Bull? I'd like to buy $50,000 worth of Red Bull today.' Then they've met the quota. I don't want to be that business."

Clements, however, doesn't see the solution to the Big Easy's problem as simple as just recategorizing the premises as an events center. For him, there's still the issue of minors having access to alcohol more easily than in other venues.

Margolis, however, said Knitting Factory has not only remodeled the Big Easy, making it difficult for minors to hide drinks, but that he's beefed up security beyond what's required legally. For example, patrons buying more than one drink are watched by security from a perch to ensure that all drinks end up in the hands of adults of legal age.

"We have more security per head than in any venue and any arena by far," said Margolis, who tries to have one security staff member for every 50 guests at the Big Easy while most venues operate closer to a ratio of 1 to 100. "I think we should be the example of the venue that's doing things right.

"I want them to tell me how they are watching a 21-year-old guy who's sitting with his 18-year-old girlfriend watching a hockey game when he gets a beer and hands it off to her," Margolis said.

But according to Clements, exceptions like the multipurpose arena exception are for fixed-site seating venues without central bars.

"Most of them are assigned seating. There's not a bar in that whole seating floor area," said Clements. "You have to go out of the facility and up like in the mezzanine or someplace else to get your drinks. It's not an atmosphere like a bar. And also, when the show is over, people tend to leave and go home."

In other words, at fixed-site seating arenas, crowds don't sit around the bar throwing back beers, eventually creating a problem that law enforcement would need to respond to. Clements said calls for service from local law enforcement agencies are far greater for establishments like the Big Easy or the former over-under dance club Bogie's, which has recently become the Grizzly Rose on Front Street.

However, Margolis said he hasn't seen the numbers showing that such incidents even involve minors.

"How many kids are really getting alcohol? Where are the numbers? What are the statistics? Where are the percentages? Where are the DUIs?" he asked.

As for a compromise that would physically separate minors from adults at a show, Margolis said he tried to find a feasible way to do it that didn't require half the venue's patrons to view a show through a Plexiglas screen.

While Margolis said Knitting Factory will continue to work with Idaho lawmakers and ABC for a realistic solution, he's ready to stop battling Idaho's legal system and get back to his day job.

"Knitting Factory is not this fly-by-night company. I sit at home with my wife and two kids, and I don't want calls that I have hammered teenagers driving home from the Big Easy," he said. "The bottom line is we want to bring cool emerging artists to the Treasure Valley."

This week or next, the bill—along with new language to better define an events center—heads back to the Senate State Affairs Committee with lobbyist Lynn Darrington. Once the language has been amended, Sen. Michael Jorgenson will carry the bill to the floor. Prognosis for the bill can't be all bad since Darrington is the daughter of Declo Republican Sen. Denton Darrington, who sits on the committee.

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