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Plans for new downtown State College restaurant complicated by liquor license transfer

State College Borough Council members discuss possible new restaurant

State College Borough Council discussed a proposed restaurant—tentatively named Queenstown—for downtown State College, Pa. A restaurant liquor license transfer from College Township could complicate plans.
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State College Borough Council discussed a proposed restaurant—tentatively named Queenstown—for downtown State College, Pa. A restaurant liquor license transfer from College Township could complicate plans.

An upscale, New Zealand themed restaurant is planned for downtown State College, though an intermunicipal restaurant liquor license transfer could complicate the plans.

The restaurant — tentatively named Queenstown — would be located in the former Spats Cafe and Speakeasy location and could feature breakfast, lunch and dinner in a refined casual environment. The business is expected to be open seven days per week with a meal price range of $20-$25 per person, according to the transfer application.

Owners Paul and Deanna Gillespie — both born in Centre County and Penn State alumni — founded the group that operates five similar restaurants in San Diego, California.

“It is very similar to American food, but it has a lot of different sauces,” Paul Gillespie said of New Zealand cuisine during Monday’s borough council meeting. “(There is a) high emphasis on quality and being well-served.”

Planned improvements to the building include large windows emphasizing natural light, patio and deck seating, general manager Cole Ghidella told councilors. Seating capacity is about 225, though it could increase to 265 with the proposed outdoor seating, according to the application.

“This is a high-end restaurant with quality meals, where you’re not going to see the younger generation spend too much time — mainly because it will be more pricey than the other locations,” attorney Ellen Freeman said during the meeting.

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The building on the corner of Pugh Street and College Avenue where Spats Cafe and Speakeasy used to be could become a new, upscale restaurant. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

More adult dining options are needed downtown because it seems as though the variety has become more narrow, Borough Council President Evan Myers said Friday.

“I think that by bringing more folks downtown, bringing more diverse types of people downtown — from an age perspective and an interest perspective — can do nothing but help downtown,” Myers said. “Every study that’s ever been done shows that diversity of any kind, about anything, strengthens a community and I think that would be very beneficial downtown.”

The restaurant received support from council members and borough residents, though Assistant Borough Manager of Public Safety Tom King acknowledged a potential “challenge” because of liquor license transfer laws.

An application requires the receiving municipality’s approval when it has more than one liquor license per 3,000 residents. State College currently has 36% more restaurant liquor licenses than allowed by state Liquor Control Board quota, King said during the meeting.

There are 48 retail establishments in the borough that sell alcoholic beverages and 36 of those establishments operate within five blocks of the proposed restaurant, King said.

“We need a real restaurant. I don’t have a problem with that,” councilwoman Theresa Lafer said during the meeting. “I don’t know whether this particular style (of) restaurant will go over as well as they hope, but one can hope so. But my question, however, is: what if it doesn’t? ... My problem with this request is that we simply have too many alcohol licenses in the borough.”

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The building on the corner of Pugh Street and College Avenue where Spats Cafe and Speakeasy used to be could become an upscale restaurant. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Borough staff recommended the license be approved with conditions, like requiring 65% of sales be food and prohibiting the sale of alcohol after midnight.

“We have to have some protection that it will not become a night club that is not in the borough’s best interest,” King said during the meeting. “How do we prevent that and, at the same time, not (put) the business at such an unfair advantage that they can’t succeed and they can’t be successful — because we want them to be.”

Gillespie and Freeman asked for the liquor license to be unrestricted, like it was at Spats, because they said expensive alcohol can skew sales percentages, even though alcohol sales may not be high in volume. Gillespie suggested the percentage be set at 40%, which is what his insurer requires to insure a restaurant.

“I must stress that I completely hear and understand the issues about converting to a bar. I’m in San Diego with five unrestricted licenses and we have not converted to a bar, although we could make more money,” Gillespie said during the meeting. “I have no desire to deal with those headaches. I do have a desire to have a great restaurant.”

Myers, who is not yet sure whether he will vote for or against the application, said he needs more information and deliberation before addressing the Gillespies’ request.

Council is expected to discuss the transfer at its work session Monday and vote on the application July 15.

“This type of a restaurant would be a positive addition to downtown,” Myers said. “When government gets involved in making certain business decisions, that can be problematic. At the same time, the role of government is the public health and welfare, so we are, in fact, charged with weighing in on some of those type of decisions.”

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.
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