Vancouver's Kiggins Theatre and Camas' Liberty Theatre would get a big boost to business and their downtown areas if they were allowed to serve alcohol in their auditoriums, even when children are present, the owners of those businesses told state lawmakers on Thursday.
A bill that would allow that died in Olympia last year, but it was resurrected in the 2013 Washington Legislature by its primary sponsor, Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. The state's liquor laws prohibit businesses from serving alcohol in dark venues where minors can mingle with those buying alcohol.
If a new $450 beer and wine license for movie houses was approved by the Legislature, families could visit Kiggins Theatre, watch a movie with their kids and also have a glass of beer or wine while the movie plays. Kiggins currently has a lounge area, but it's separate from the auditorium.
Large theaters in the state have the luxury of serving alcohol in designated theaters where minors are not allowed. For example, Cinetopia in Vancouver has so-called "living room theaters" that serve food and alcohol prior to the start of each movie.
Kiggins and the Liberty are struggling to compete with those larger venues, Moeller said while testifying on the measure, House Bill 1001, before the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee on Thursday. Helping the small theaters stay afloat is a mater of preserving history, he added.
Those testifying in support of the bill also said drawing more customers to the Vancouver and Camas theaters, which are located in their cities' cores, will help revitalize those downtown areas. Many Southwest Washington residents are accustomed to enjoying the theater pubs in Portland, and the proposed bill would allow single-screen movie houses to compete in that market, supporters also said.
"It's crucial that we support this area to continue that growth," said Dan Wyatt Sr., father of Kiggins owner Dan Wyatt Jr. "The movie theater is a point of interest that gets people in the downtown area."
Although several people testified in favor of the legislation, it did not have unanimous support. Those lobbying on behalf of the Washington Association of Substance Abuse Prevention said the bill adds to the over-availability of alcohol in our society — from wine samplings at farmers markets to the sale of hard liquor at the grocery store.
"We think this sends the wrong message to our youth," said Seth Dawson, of the prevention association. Between the recent privatization of liquor and the legalization of recreational marijuana use, "prevention is in a world of hurt," he added.
Another opponent of the bill, substance abuse specialist Mary Ellen de la Pena, said youngsters notice when adults "need to have alcohol served in order to enjoy a recreation activity, such as viewing a film."
Kiggins owner Wyatt Jr. said adding alcohol to the movie-watching experience would not transform the venue into a bar, a place where many people go to get drunk.
"The theater isn't going to be like a frat party or a tavern," he said. "It's going to be very casual."
Historic, single-screen theaters face other economic challenges, including the cost of shifting to digital projection, and a limited selection of films to offer when compared to bigger theaters.
Last session, the bill to create a liquor license for theaters passed through the House and was poised for a vote on the Senate floor, but a budget dispute took center stage, effectively killing the legislation.
Representatives from the state's liquor control board testified on Thursday that the new bill might need some minor tweaks, including narrowing the definition of a theater, as well as requiring servers in the theater be trained to notice when minors are trying to drink or when a patron has had too much to drink.
"I would be open to any new language to make this work as well as possible," Moeller said.