In what may be a blow to some Millville District residents and a boost to the survival prospects of the , the voted 4-3 Monday night to allow small restaurants in the district to close two hours later and serve alcohol.
Councilmen Derek Young, Paul Conan, Tim Payne and Paul Kadzik voted in favor, while the opposing votes came from councilmen Steve Ekberg, Jim Franich and Ken Malich.
The new ordinance has been a controversial one, stirring emotions on both sides of a debate centered on whether the changes would aid business development at the expense of Millville's historic character. The council majority ultimately decided it would not.
"This ordinance doesn't have anything to with wanting to change the character of the neighborhood," said Young, just before the vote. "The question before us and the one we're answering tonight is whether 9 o'clock is a reasonable hour for a restaurant to stay open and I do think it is."
The ordinance allows any Gig Harbor restaurant operating in less than 1,200 square feet of space and without a grill or deep-fat fryer to stay open until 9 p.m. and sell beer and wine. But the focus has been on Millville establishments — most notably the Red Rooster — which have been barred from selling alcohol or staying open later than 7 p.m. since the early 1990s.
The year-old Red Rooster has struggled under those limitations, prompting the restaurant's landlords, Stanley and Judith Stearns, to submit the original proposal for an ordinance change.
Owner Jamie Radcliffe told council members at a that she had been forced to limit her menu and hours to breakfast and lunch because the dinner crowd had been put off by the 7 p.m. closing and no-alcohol restrictions. Her message that night was that the restaurant's ability to survive turned on the relaxation of those rules.
Millville, however, is considered the heartbeat of Gig Harbor's maritime history, and city codes for the district have been carefully crafted to promote uses that would preserve its historic fishing village charm. Making changes, even moderate ones, is a sensitive issue.
This was apparent from the large turnout at the public hearing as well as from the numerous letters and emails forwarded to the council. Petitions were submitted supporting both sides of the issue. In addition, council members Kadzik and Franich, who live in or adjacent to Millville, and Stearns representative John Moist went out door to door to query residents on the matter.
Millville residents opposed to the ordinance argued that the rule changes would erode the neighborhood’s historic legacy and disrupt the quiet by bringing in more traffic and noise late at night. Supporters disagreed noting that the changes were moderate in nature and would benefit the community by bringing more business, jobs and increased property values to Gig Harbor’s struggling downtown corridor.
Underlying some of the opposition is the animosity that some Millville residents have toward Stearns. It dates back 15 years, when Stearns sought permitting for further commercial development of his property in Waterfront Millville. Residents opposed aspects of the plan, and the city essentially denied it based on parking regulations. But it led to a multi-year legal battle. Residents entangled in the fray continue to distrust the Texas businessman’s motives to this day.
“If the ordinance passes, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stan Stearns put a restaurant in that building over there,” said one Millville resident recently, referring to the commercial space Stearns is constructing next to the .
Kadzik also noted at the public hearing that some of the Millville residents against the ordinance told him it was because of the “personality” backing it.
“There’s no hidden agenda,” said Moist, of the concerns. “Stan Stearns’ intention is for this downtown to thrive. He is worried about businesses failing.”
Ultimately, critics were more opposed to the two-hour extension in hours than restaurants serving beer and wine. Franich objected to the notion that it was a modest change. “From 7 to 9, for the residents that live [in Millville] that is a big difference,” he said.
Mayor Chuck Hunter echoed that sentiment in urging the council to take a closer look at the ordinance before making a final decision. “Waterfront Millville was created for a reason,” he said. “This is just chipping away at the fabric and character of Gig Harbor.”
The majority approving the ordinance, however, didn’t see it as an attempt to chip away at Gig Harbor’s historical core or even save an individual business. It was about removing outdated restrictions and enhancing the vitality of the Millville’s historic character.
“I’m pleased the council had the wisdom to pass this,” said Moist, adding that the Red Rooster would likely move slowly to incorporate the changes into its business. “The Red Rooster won’t be able to stay open until nine until they get a revised conditional use permit and that could take months.”
The only other restaurant in Millville that could currently take advantage of the new ordinance is . But owners Michael and Susanne Tunney have no immediate plans to act on the changes.
“We’ve got something good going right now,” said Susanne Tunney, in a recent interview. “I’m not ready to jump into action on something new.”