MILWAUKEE — Increasingly and across the country, brides and grooms are having their weddings in barns. But in Wisconsin, a debate about liquor licenses could shutter many wedding barn doors.
“If the state changes the way it interprets the liquor license law, it will put us out of business,” said John Govin, owner of the Weddin’ Barn in Menomonie, about 200 miles northwest of Madison in Dunn County. “When we went through our zoning process, my town chairman said, ‘I will support your business venture, but don’t ever ask me for a liquor license because I can’t support a liquor license.’”
Until now, Wisconsin wedding barns have had no trouble operating without a liquor license when hosting private events where the bridal party is giving the alcohol to their guests, not selling it.
But in a Nov. 16 letter, out-going Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, opined that private event venues — such as wedding barns — should be regulated like public places. If Gov.-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, and his administration upholds Schimel’s interpretation, it could be enforced as early as January.
But wedding barns are not public spaces, and weddings are not public events. Unlike parks or bars, wedding barns are spaces people rent to use, and it is basic knowledge that to attend a wedding one needs an invitation.
Unsurprisingly, members of the Wisconsin Tavern League are the ones who asked Schimel to weigh in on the topic, and this is just the latest episode in a year of attacks on wedding barns.
Last winter, the Tavern League added an amendment to a bill that would have required wedding barns to get an alcohol license. A Tavern League lobbyist told the Wisconsin State Journal in March that “liquor license venues around the state are losing business to private property owners who convert barns into wedding reception halls and allow guests to supply their own alcohol.”
But the bill failed. Attorneys at our organization, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), pointed out that the amendment was so broad it would have required licensing to consume alcohol at other private events, such as tailgating spots outside of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, which really was a flop in Packers country.
Last February, the Legislative Study Committee for Alcoholic Beverages was formed to examine the licensing of venues. Interestingly, many committee members are affiliated or work with the Tavern League, and eight have liquor licenses. The chair of the committee is Republican state Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, the owner of Al-Gen Supper Club in Rhinelander, and former Tavern League president.
The committee was unable to gain traction on the proposed bills, so the chairman tried to bypass the Legislature by requesting Schimel’s interpretation of existing law.
Many barn owners feel like they are David fighting Goliath. Steve Nagy, owner of Homestead Meadows Farm in the town of Greenville near Appleton, emigrated from communist Hungary when he was 12 years old and likened the committee’s operation to his experience in “the Old Country”: “Powerful insiders with clear conflicts of interest are using their influence to eliminate competition. It’s unbelievable to see this in a capitalist, free-market economy.”
Today, more than 300 wedding barns are in Wisconsin and, according to The Knot’s wedding survey, 15 percent of weddings last year occurred at a barn or farm.
If Schimel’s interpretation is enforced, many wedding barns will buy a license for around $500, if they are available. But in 1997, the Tavern League lobbied for a cap on liquor licenses, and some municipalities issue none at all. One can sometimes get a reserve license in a municipality that has reached its cap for about $10,000.
The future is uncertain for wedding barns. Nagy has 30 weddings booked in 2019 and 2020. If this rule is enforced, he will need to purchase a $10,000 license, make arrangements with a wholesaler and construct refrigerated units for alcohol storage on his property.
If the Tavern League thinks that wedding barns enjoy an unfair advantage, they should lobby to remove regulations that are inhibiting their businesses. But when you’re the bigger kid on the block, it’s often easier to get your way by demanding that the smaller kids fall in line.
Unfortunately for the big kids, attorneys at WILL stand ready to go to court to defend wedding barns.
Szafir is executive vice president and Petersen is a research associate for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty in Milwaukee: www.will-law.org.