JEN SHAUL, a bartender at Buck’s Saloon in Melba, Idaho, pours whiskey at the bar.

JEN SHAUL, a bartender at Buck’s Saloon in Melba, Idaho, pours whiskey at the bar.

NAMPA, Idaho

Securing a liquor license for a new bar or restaurant in Boise could mean waiting years or paying tens of thousands of dollars on top of applications. But in Nampa and Caldwell, the cost is only the price of the application, and the wait is only as long as it takes to fill out and process the paperwork.

That’s because the Canyon County cities have something many neighboring towns don’t have: available liquor licenses.

Licenses to sell liquor by the drink, which are capped in number based on a city’s population, have become so coveted in some Idaho cities that business owners may have to pay large sums of money to buy or lease a license from someone who already has one.



Their other option is to add their name to a long waiting list to get the next one that comes available through the state. In Boise alone, there are more than 60 people on the waiting list for the next available liquor license. The person on the list the longest has been waiting since 1999, according to Idaho State Police, the agency that oversees liquor licensing.

Meanwhile in Nampa, there were 17 liquor licenses ready and available, as of January. Caldwell also has eight licenses available.

Nampa Economic Development Director Beth Ineck sees that as a potential selling point at a time when the city is looking to attract new restaurants.

“Our population has grown so fast over the last 10 years, and it’s just taken a long time for service amenities and retail to catch up,” she said.

Why the demand?

The number of liquor licenses allotted to each city in Idaho is capped by population — one for every 1,500 people or two total for towns with 1,500 people or fewer, according to Idaho Code. Businesses have claimed all of the liquor licenses available in Boise, Garden City, Meridian and Eagle. All of those cities now have waiting lists, according to ISP.

Beer and wine licenses are not limited the same way.

The tight market for licenses has forced even successful Idaho restaurateurs to look out of state to expand. Kevin Settles, owner of Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery, which has three locations in Idaho, recently told the Idaho Business Review that he chose Colorado for his next restaurant, because of the hassle and cost of finding a liquor license in Idaho.

In that same story, Pam Eaton, executive director of the Idaho Lodging and Restaurant Association, lamented the problem with liquor licensing that she says is “crimping economic growth” and the fact that the Idaho Legislature hasn’t been interested in changing the laws surrounding licensing.

The debate over changing the liquor licensing laws, which have been in effect since 1947, has simmered for years with numerous reports over the years of businesses paying exorbitant amounts to get a license on the secondary market.

For example, the owners of Montana Steak House in Twin Falls took out a nearly $200,000 loan to purchase a license for their business on the secondary market, because there weren’t any state licenses available for the city. That amount covered the cost of purchasing the license on the secondary market and the 10 percent transfer fee to ISP, the Times-News reported in 2011.

Gov. Butch Otter assembled a task force to investigate reforming Idaho’s liquor laws, and in 2009, reform legislation was introduced that would have done away with the limits on licenses.

The plan would have allowed cities and counties to issue unlimited new licenses to restaurants and lodging facilities only, but not to new bars, the Associated Press reported. It passed in the Senate, but was rejected by the Idaho House amid fears that it would greatly increase the number of establishments that serve liquor, the Spokesman Review reported.

So far this session, legislation has been brought forward that makes minor corrections to the existing law regarding the definition of a person for retail sale of liquor by the drink, and to update a code reference to the Idaho Income Tax Act.

Legislators have also discussed a ban on powdered alcohol in the state.

Restaurants wanted

In his recent State of the City address, Nampa Mayor Bob Henry announced a plan was taking shape to bring new businesses to the Ford Idaho Center.

Henry is working with Ineck to create an entertainment district that would spur private development on property owned by the city with the specific intent to attract restaurants. The new development would share parking with the Idaho Center.

“The goal is to drive development that would help the Idaho Center be more successful,” Ineck said.

Ineck was recently in Philadelphia, where she got an idea for what she would like to see near the Idaho Center. Philadelphia has a concentration of sports and entertainment venues along with restaurants and sports bars in the same area. Ineck said she envisions something similar, but on a much different scale in Nampa near the Idaho Center.

The plan is still in the early stages of development. Ineck has had discussions with Idaho Center management about what type of development would complement events at the venue and create a better overall experience for people when they attend those events.

“We’re just trying to put together all of that initial data and really identify what is the base demand for a development in that area and then start to have some conversations with developers who could do that type of project,” she said.

The preliminary stages also involve looking into how the city will pitch the project to potential developers. The availability of liquor licenses is one potential advantage for the project.

“That’s definitely a selling point for this project and something we will look into more, and incorporate that type of information into any marketing materials that we would put out for it,” Ineck said.

Nampa’s population growth over the years has earned it additional liquor licenses. ISP checks the Census numbers on an annual basis for each city in the state that allows liquor by the drink to determine the number of licenses that are eligible. Cities like Nampa and Meridian that have experienced substantial growth recently have also seen more licenses come available, though ISP couldn’t provide an exact number of new licenses that come available due to population growth.

But, as Ineck said, Nampa’s retail growth hasn’t kept up with its population growth in that same time.

Idaho Code gives cities the ability to determine if liquor can be sold by the drink within city limits. Several cities in Canyon County don’t allow the practice including Wilder, Middleton and Greenleaf. Greenleaf doesn’t allow the sale of alcohol at all, including beer and wine.

Up until November, Melba was also on that list. Russel Gant, the owner of Buck’s Steakhouse and Saloon, jumped over some additional hurdles to change the law and secure a liquor license for his business.

The only way Buck’s could survive in the small town was with the additional revenue that came from liquor sales, Gant said.

In order to change the law, a petition first has to be signed to get the measure on the ballot. It then goes before voters to determine if the law should be changed. Melba voters approved the measure, which gave the town two brand-new liquor licenses.

They were both claimed right away. One went to Buck’s and the other went to Cook’s Two Hole, according to ISP.

After two weeks with his new liquor license, Gant said sales at Buck’s have increased 30 percent.

“The customers are really enjoying it,” Gant said. “Now they can come in and have something a little different than what they could get before.”

Gant is now sending a couple of his employees to Las Vegas, where he lives, to learn bartending skills and develop drinks that are special to Buck’s.

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How it works

• THE NUMBER OF liquor licenses allotted to each city in Idaho is capped by population — one for every 1,500 people or two total for towns with 1,500 people or fewer, according to Idaho Code. Businesses have claimed all of the liquor licenses available in Boise, Garden City, Meridian and Eagle. All of those cities now have waiting lists.

BEER AND WINE LICENSES are not limited the same way.

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