Outdoor dining permits stuck in limbo: Tensions rise between restaurants and city of La Crosse

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — Downtown restaurants are frustrated that they can’t serve their customers outdoors, after applying for outdoor dining permits months ago.

Dining tables are not the only thing missing outside Soula’s Cuisina. Manager Greg Saliaras says that, with the street space empty, he’s also missing out on dollars.

“For us, it was a lifeline,” Saliaras said.

Two years ago, the city passed an emergency ordinance that allowed restaurants to set up temporary outdoor seating.

“We waived a lot of ordinances, permits, licensing and fees just to get people helping,” said Terry Bauer, executive manager of Downtown Mainstreet. “A lot of restaurants were hit significantly, as were retailers during COVID.”

In May, the city replaced the temporary ordinance with one that would allow for permanent outdoor dining.

Restaurants say that’s when the issues began.

“We submitted all our paperwork right away,” Saliaras said. “May 20th, we hit another roadblock. June 2nd, we hit another roadblock. June 10th, we hit another roadblock and we just keep going on and on and on.”

The permanent ordinance should have been passed earlier, Bauer said.

“We were well behind the curve right from day one and now it’s almost July,” he said.

Communication with city officials has been frustrating, Saliaras said.

“We send emails, sometimes the emails don’t get responded. I get the runaround sometimes, and it gets frustrating,” he said.

But Mayor Mitch Reynolds disputed that scenario, saying, “I don’t know if that’s accurate. There’s been plenty of communication.”

Reynolds said he agrees the ordinance should have been passed earlier. Restaurants have to submit detailed designs and structural measurements that were not required under the temporary permits.

“Basically, we’re allowing people to have folks dining in the street, and there are some significant safety concerns to not only limit the city’s liability, but the liability of property owners themselves,” Reynolds said.

Outdoor dining structures have to be fire safe, must not block storm drains and be accessible under the American Disabilities Act.

“There has to be accessibility not only into the area, but around the tables as well,” Reynolds said.

Saliaras said the delay has been costly.

“Probably say every week that goes by, we probably gets to the thousands of dollars,” he said.

Reynolds said the process has been a learning curve for everyone involved.

“When we do this next year, everyone will have a much better understanding, it’ll be so much easier,” he said.

In the meantime, restaurants continue to count down the days until they can move outdoors.

The city has approved five outdoor dining permits, Reynolds said, and seven permits are pending.

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