Hold Your Liquor
Las Cruces bar closings come after statewide changes to the Liquor Control Act
By Mark Sanders
Las Cruces isn’t typically the first place that comes to mind when you hear the word “nightlife.” But until a couple weeks ago, you could still go out and see live music and do some bar-hopping.
No longer so. On Oct. 19, one of Las Cruces’ only live music venues, The Club, closed its doors without warning. Its new owner, Mick Vaskov, decided the threat of losing his liquor license was too great--over the past year, The Club had been cited for Liquor Control Act violations--so, on an otherwise normal Thursday night, The Club’s head of security told patrons they had a half-hour to drink up and get out. It was as simple as that.
“Is it an overreaction? No,” says Vaskov, a longtime businessman who made the decision to shut down The Club, along with other bars The Brew and The Annex, after amendments to the Liquor Control Act took effect Oct. 15. “I decided that I needed to minimize the risk of losing the license.”
Under the new regulations, any business cited for serving minors or intoxicated people three times in a 12-month period will lose its dispenser liquor license, and thus be barred from operating. Vaskov admits his clubs already had citations, though that wasn’t the only reason for shutting them down.
“[The Club] probably needed to be closed anyway,” says Vaskov, a congenial, deep-voiced man who is nearing retirement age. The bar, he admits, “looked like it was out of control. That had a lot to do with it.” He acknowledges mismanagement as one reason he wanted to shut down the clubs, and calls the bars’ closure “a time-out.” In a year, when the citations expire, Vaskov may reopen one or more of the establishments.
Looking at the cost of liquor licenses, it’s easy to understand Vaskov’s alarm.
“The highest price for a full-dispenser license was $600,000,” says Ed Lopez, superintendent of the State Regulation and Licensing Department. “It’s the most valuable asset the bar has.”
As reported previously in the Alibi [News Feature, "Strong Medicine," July 6-12], there are only 1,410 such licenses in the entire state, the highest concentration of which (359, to be exact) are held in Albuquerque. More specifically, downtown Albuquerque. Santa Fe has 116; Las Cruces has 33.
Downtown Albuquerque bar owners have complained for months that they’re being unfairly targeted, ever since Special Investigations Division (SID) agents, who are responsible for enforcing the Liquor Control Act, began giving Breathalizer tests to bar patrons this summer. The Downtown Alliance, representing all liquor license holders in the area, hired an attorney to protect local businesses.
Lopez brushes aside accusations, saying straightforwardly: The Downtown situation is just a matter of density.
“Five counties have disproportionately high DWIs,” he says, speaking from his office in Santa Fe. Bernalillo is one of them, so SID obviously pays more attention to liquor license holders here. Furthermore, with downtown Albuquerque’s concentration of bars, it makes sense to focus on this area.
Vaskov sees it differently. Santa Fe’s web of bureaucracy is to blame, he says, but with multiple government agencies at work here, it’s easier to point fingers at the little guy than the state.
“We got politics coming from the governor’s office, regulation coming from authority [the Alcohol and Gaming Division] and enforcement from another [SID]. So I guess you can say there’s no one to blame but the bar owners themselves.”
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