Lone Tree sees clash over Hooters, council urged to nix liquor license

Valerie Richardson
The Colorado Statesman

Lone Tree city council member Kim Monson isn’t what you’d call a Hooters regular — in fact, she’s never visited the place — but she also doesn’t think it should be barred from the city because its waitresses wear skimpy outfits.

Her stance has put her at odds with a vocal swath of residents fighting to keep the restaurant also known for its chicken wings from opening a franchise near upscale Park Meadows Mall. A Change.org petition against “Hooters in our backyard” posted by Centennial resident Paul Allen was rapidly closing in on its goal of 200 signatures as of Tuesday.

“Literally, that location is yards from the backyard of my neighbor. They’ll look out their back door and see a Hooters sign,” said Allen. “It’s less than a half mile from my son’s elementary school.”

The former TGI Friday’s near Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree is being renovated to house a Hooters restaurant, touching off opposition from some local residents who are calling on the city council to deny the restaurant’s liquor license.

Photo by Valerie Richardson/The Colorado Statesman

The city council is expected to consider whether to approve a liquor license for the restaurant at its May 19 meeting, and it’s not necessarily a done deal. At the May 5 meeting, Monson made a motion to grant the license that failed to draw a second as other council members broached concerns about allowing a Hooters in Lone Tree.

During public comment, members of one local family said the restaurant’s scantily clad waitresses send the wrong message about women.

“There was a really well-intentioned family with three daughters who made comments that they found Hooters offensive and degrading to women,” said Monson. “And my response was, I totally agree. I’m concerned about the cultural and educational messages we are sending our young people. I’m willing to fight that fight with you, but not to decide from a city council standpoint whether we find something offensive or not.

“Because the danger is, who’s to say at some point that we might have a city council that finds a church offensive?” she said.

Monson points out that the franchise owner, Restaurants of America, has already jumped through the necessary hoops to obtain a building permit and the hotel and restaurant liquor license. The Lone Tree Hooters would fill the space vacated last year by a TGI Friday’s at South Yosemite and East County Line Road.

“[O]ur job as city council members is not to pick and choose which businesses we approve based on our own personal preferences,” Monson said in a statement after the meeting. “We are here to protect the rights of businesses to compete within the free market, while working within city code and zoning parameters. As for personal dining preferences, we exercise those when we decide where to eat out.”

Allen disagrees, arguing that the council should exercise its discretion in this instance based on the desires of the community.

“I don’t think there are constitutional issues involved here. We’re not objecting to their ability to exercise free speech. I don’t think this is even a property rights issue,” said Allen. “Fundamentally, cities have elected officials and they typically have some latitude in making decisions about liquor licenses that are influenced by the needs and the wants of the community. That’s typical across America.”

Most of the complaints are coming not from Lone Tree but from across the street in Arapahoe County, where the Willow Creek neighborhood in Centennial sits across from the restaurant site. A handful of locals have testified against the Hooters at previous meetings, but Allen is hoping to bring out a crowd and attract local television for the May 19 showdown.

In his petition, he notes that the Hooters location is “adjacent to a residential community and just a few hundred yards from Willow Creek Elementary School.”

“Hooters’ website says that ‘sex appeal is part of our thing’ and yet they offer a kids’ menu and seek to attract families and children to eat at the establishment,” says the petition. “Hooters will negatively impact property values and the quality of our neighborhood.”

Among the signers are Gordon Scarlett of Englewood, who said in a comment, “As the father of two daughters and just a guy who feels that sexualizing young girls for corporate profit dehumanizes women in general and needs to be challenged.”

Christine Justino of Centennial said “objectifying women for sake of corporate profits is wrong, and [this] type of business and business model has no place across from a residential community and within walking distance to an elementary school.”

The Lone Tree franchise won’t necessarily look like a dive. The project is based on the company’s new contemporary prototype designed to appeal to more family-minded restaurant-goers, said Corey Fisher, an architect with MHA in Denver, who is the project lead.

“The new direction is just kind of a more modern look. They’re also looking for a more family-friendly environment, so not just centered around a bar but with more seating basically for families,” said Fisher. “It’s kind of the new corporate standard and direction. There are a lot of existing ones out there, and they‘re just slowly renovating them to be this way.”

Monson argues it could be worse — it could be a strip club.

“Every municipality because of a Supreme Court ruling has to have a percentage of their city zoned for sexually-oriented business,” said Monson. “So we had to try to figure out where that could be, and that property is within the sexually-oriented business zoning. I would think that the people who are against Hooters would really not like a strip club.”

Those organizing to stop the project are running out of options. A building permit was approved in March and demolition is already under way at the former TGI Friday’s building, which means holding up the liquor license may be the most effective way to stop the restaurant from opening this summer.

Lone Tree Mayor Jim Gunning declined to say how he would vote at the March 19 meeting but stressed that the licensing procedure offers little flexibility.

“It’s not a subjective process. [Obtaining] a liquor license is a very objective process. It’s not whether you like it or dislike it, it’s a business,” Gunning said. “They have a right to apply for a liquor license, and it’s a process with a very straightforward criteria.”

If the council did reject Hooters’ liquor license based on the restaurant’s optics, it’s entirely possible the city could face legal action, although the franchise owners have not said that.

“As I said at the last council meeting, they’re an established, long-term franchise,” said Gunning. “They’re going into a location that previously had a liquor license for, I think, almost 10 years, and there really is no evidence to support rejecting the license.”

Before council members make a decision, however, Allen urged them to take another look at public opinion. He said his admittedly unscientific online poll on the website Nextdoor.com is running about 80 to 20 percent against the Hooters.

“Everybody seems to essentially be saying, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it. If you don’t like it, don’t eat there. Legally, there’s nothing we can do,’ and that’s simply not true,” said Allen.

“I think that there are avenues to more fully explore, particularly with the liquor licensing and making sure this is in fact what the community wants and needs, both the business community and the residents,” he said.

Restaurants of America was required to pay for a third-party opinion poll of residents within a one-mile radius, which showed support for adding a Hooters, said city officials.

 Monson recounts a recent discussion with someone who told her, “If the people don’t want a Hooters there, it’s your job to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“And I explained, ‘Yes, the people of Lone Tree elected me and I am to represent them; however, it has to be within the context of the Constitution,’” Monson said. “We cannot do things that are not just. We cannot do things that treat one business differently than another, and we have to protect property rights.”

She added, “If somebody comes in and they have done everything that another business has done but just because we don’t like them, we don’t approve them — then I can’t do that.”

— valrichardson17@gmail.com