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Wedding barns, other independent venues face challenge under new liquor proposal

Posted at 11:45 AM, Nov 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-24 12:45:41-05

A possible change in Wisconsin alcohol laws is creating an uncertain future for some private venues, including a growing number of wedding barns across the state.

"We were really disappointed. We hoped it wouldn't go through," said Anita Bennett, owner of Bennett Barns in Watertown.

The bill, passed with bipartisan support by both the state Senate and House last week, would update outdated liquor laws in the state, tightening enforcement. It would also require independent venues, like wedding barns, to obtain a liquor license or limit annual events — one a month or up to six a year.

The private venues now concerned don't sell alcohol and typically work with licensed third-party vendors to sell and bar tend at events.

"If we had to cut off the alcohol and we didn't have any, would we have weddings, I don't know. I don't think so," said Bennett.

Bennett said in her case, renters have always bought and brought their own alcohol, which is served under the supervision of licensed bartenders. She said she'll be able to obtain a liquor license, and Bennett Barns will be able to honor the weddings already on the calendar through 2025.

Other owners said that's not an option for them at this time and they may lose their business. Some wedding barns said they already have licenses.

"The taverns and bars don't want competition. They wanted these places shut down. And they're shutting them down through regulation," said State Sen. Duey Stroebel

Stroebel said much of the bill is good, for overhauling old laws, yet he voted against it.

"Again, there's very powerful interests that float around this capitol, and that's why this bill got done," said Stroebel.

We contacted a half dozen senators who voted in favor of the bill, including Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who introduced the proposal. They have yet to return comment on their support for the bill.

According to the Associated Press, Wisconsin wholesalers, retailers and brewers, banquet halls, and the Tavern League of Wisconsin offered support for the bill. Some lawmakers who voted for the bill have previously said wedding barns need tougher regulation for public safety, the Associated Press reported.

LeMahieu introduced the bill on Nov. 14 in an amendment, bypassing the committee process.

In a statement before it passed, the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association said:

"Please consider amendments that will make this legislation fair and equitable for private event venues before allowing the bill to pass. This tactic to try to ram it through the legislature is done for one reason — to hide it from the public. Don't let this happen."

According to the WATA, one wedding supports 30 other small businesses and all will be impacted if the bill is made into law.

"I can’t tell these people I can’t do their wedding. That would be a disaster — could you imagine? I mean, brides and grooms, they’re on a train, pushing forward to get married. I just think it’s a disaster for a lot of venues," said Bennett.