Proposed bill would allow alcohol in Kiggins Theatre auditorium

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Kiggins Theatre owner Bill Leigh has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into fixing up and reopening the downtown Vancouver landmark. He hopes a new bill proposed by a Southwest Washington lawmaker will help him attract more patrons by allowing him to serve alcohol in the theater’s auditorium.

Under current Washington state law, Kiggins Theatre and other historic, single-screen movie venues have only a few choices when it comes to serving alcohol to filmgoers.

They could get a tavern license and operate as a bar, meaning those younger than 21 would not be allowed in the theater. Or they could do what Kiggins does now, which is sequester alcohol drinkers to a room separate from the auditorium.

“It’s a very difficult business model,” Leigh said. He believes being able to serve alcohol to adults in the theater’s auditorium who sit alongside minors would increase business, especially when the theater typically shows just one movie for an entire week.

Last year, Leigh met with state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who has taken the theater owner’s concerns to heart — and to Olympia. Moeller last week introduced House Bill 2558, which would amend Washington state’s liquor license rules to potentially allow theaters to serve alcohol in spaces shared with minors.

The bill would create a $200 theater license to sell beer and another $200 theater license to sell wine. If business owners want to serve alcohol in spaces cohabited by underage patrons, they would additionally need to submit $50 to the state’s liquor board, along with a plan describing how the business would prevent underage drinking.

The bill wouldn’t affect theaters with more than one screen, Moeller said. Large theaters have the luxury of serving alcohol in designated theaters, which does not conflict with current Washington state liquor regulations. For example, Cinetopia in Vancouver has so-called “living room theaters” that serve food and alcohol prior to the start of each movie.

Moeller said he used broad language in the bill and that lawmakers could hammer out the details by amending the legislation. He said he envisions the new rule looking like the theater liquor laws of Washington state’s neighbor to the south.

“They have it over in Oregon,” Moeller said. “There’s no reason we can’t have it here.”

Under Moeller’s bill, it is possible that single-screen theater pubs could provide wristbands for their 21 and older customers or even have designated events or hours that are closed to minors. Current state liquor laws require venues that allow alcohol and minors in the same rooms to have brighter lighting so employees to keep an eye on underage customers.

Kiggins Theatre originally opened in 1936. In 2005, Vancouver-based Historic Movie Theaters took over operations, but because of declining ticket sales, the company couldn’t cover rent. It closed the theater in May 2010.

Leigh reopened Kiggins last summer and ticket sales have been somewhat slow.

Moeller’s proposal “could very easily make a difference in us being able to make it or not,” Leigh said.

He added that Moeller’s staff worked closely with him while crafting the legislation.

“I’m impressed,” Leigh said. “It’s neat to see the government work the way we were taught it would work.”

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics.