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Mike Howell: How a popular West End gay bar won a ‘red tape’ battle with city hall

Bert Hick: ‘An antiquated, ludicrous, ridiculous policy that no other city in the world has’
MichelFountainhead
Michel Duprat, owner of the Fountainhead Pub, on the patio of his business Thursday.

“I must ask the question: Why are we here?”

That’s how Bert Hick opened his remarks to city council Tuesday as the consultant for the Fountainhead Pub, whose owner Michel Duprat was seeking to expand the popular gay bar at 1025 Davie St.

The request from Hick and Duprat was to knock out a wall in an adjacent vacant building (formerly Mailbox Plus) to increase the inside capacity of the pub from 111 patrons to 255 and the patio from 36 to 64.

“What we're talking about is merely an increase in capacity for a neighbourhood pub that's been in existence for over 20 years that has an impeccable record,” said Hick, the president of Rising Tide Consultants.

“I would also like to suggest that council give serious consideration to instruct staff to get rid of this antiquated, ludicrous, ridiculous policy that no other city in the world has. I mean, do I need to be a little clearer as to how I feel about this policy? It is absolutely asinine, quite frankly.”

'Good neighbour agreement'

The policy essentially boils down to this: If another bar with a class three licence — in this case, Numbers Cabaret across the street from the Fountainhead — is within 100 metres of a bar seeking to expand its operation, then it does not align with the city’s distancing requirements.

Unable to knock out the wall and expand, that would mean the Fountainhead would need a separate business licence, a separate “good neighbour agreement” and have to run a separate business next door, even though it’s the same business.

Make sense?

Council heard from Sarah Hicks, the city’s chief licence inspector, who said to make a one-time exception for the Fountainhead’s proposed increase to 255 persons “could introduce uncertainty in the city's process and assessment of applications.”

“The purpose of the policy is to maintain the density and distribution of pubs and nightclubs throughout the city, thereby maintaining a general number and size of establishments that are suitable for a neighbourhood or area,” Hicks said. “Staff apply the policy consistently.”

'It's pretty, pretty depressing'

John Clerides owns Numbers Cabaret and told council he didn’t have a problem with the Fountainhead’s proposed expansion. Neither did the owner of Celebrities Nightclub or the West End Business Improvement Association.

“We're two completely different businesses, and we complement each other,” said Clerides, who went on to say the staff report regarding the expansion didn’t contemplate development in the area and how more people will seek out establishments such as his and the Fountainhead.

“If this application is denied, they'll just go elsewhere. At one time in Vancouver when I first started going out, we used to have 22 to 23 gay bars, now we're down to about four. It's pretty, pretty depressing.”

The proposal also got support from Ian Tostenson, the president and CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, and Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees organization.

Tostenson echoed some of Hick’s comments about the Fountainhead and said it has been a “longstanding great business,” which has served the community in the Davie Village for more than 20 years.

“So we obviously are 100 per cent in support of this application to increase capacity in the simplest way possible,” Tostenson said. “I don't think that we need to be making this more complicated than it is.”

'This one drives me crazy'

Guignard prefaced his remarks by saying it was “relatively unusual” for him to get involved in a single application, noting his organization advocates on behalf of private liquor stores, pubs, nightclubs and hotel bars.

“This one drives me crazy, so I felt compelled to — in this case — offer a few points for council’s consideration,” said Guignard, who lamented the loss in B.C. businesses from Covid-19’s financial hit on the industry.

“About 15 per cent of our industry is already gone, and another 10 to 15 per cent don't know if they're going to make it to the end of the year once the summer business slows down.”

What council heard from Duprat was the Fountainhead was borne out of the belief that a pub was much needed in the West End to serve the LGBTQ2+ community. He said the street-facing pub was the first of its kind 22 years ago.

“The pub has not changed its vision since then,” Duprat said. “It's been a safe space for all those who cross our threshold.”

Over the years, the pub has sponsored several LGBTQ2+ teams and leagues such as the West End Slowpitch Association, the Cutting Edges hockey team and the Vancouver Gay Volleyball Association.

The pub has also put on numerous fundraisers.

$100,000 in lease costs

Duprat noted the application to expand the Fountainhead was submitted to the city in May 2021. With no action for more than a year, Duprat said he has paid $100,000 in lease costs for the neighbouring building, which he described as “a very expensive locker.”

Council also heard from Vince Marino, one of the original investors of the Fountainhead and current owner of the Pumpjack Pub and Junction Public House, who recalled that he and his business partners had to wait three years before council approved the opening of the Fountainhead.

“We actually had declared bankruptcy, we actually visited a bankruptcy process because that's what had happened to maintain our leasing area for three years,” Marino said. “But we saw ourselves through and we're here.”

'Giving the finger to common sense'

Council had heard enough.

In a motion moved by Coun. Lisa Dominato, council unanimously approved the expansion of the Fountainhead, but not before some criticisms of the policy and the need to “cut red tape” at city hall.

“I just I want to apologize to Vince and Michel for the trouble, frustration, time and effort that this has caused you especially as we come out of the pandemic and we want to have a fun, vibrant city,” said Coun. Melissa De Genova. “We want to make sure that things are easier, not more difficult for you.”

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung: “I'll speak frankly: I feel like if we accepted the existing recommendation [to have two separate business licences] it would really be like giving the finger to common sense. At some point, we have to create an environment where it's actually easy to do business.”

Coun. Adriane Carr: “Policies don't always apply to every place. The uniqueness of a place like the Davie Village has to be taken into consideration if the policy doesn't work for what's being proposed. And we need to hear about it, understand it and make sure that how what is being asked is what will work.”

Council has asked staff to review the guidelines for liquor establishment location and distancing and to report back in 2023 on options and recommendations for updating and modernizing the city's liquor rules.

Meanwhile, Duprat said he was happy common sense prevailed.

“It’s just been a very long process,” he said, when reached Thursday at his pub.

Now he has to apply for a building permit...

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings

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