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Remember when Harrisburg came for our beer gardens? What happened with that, anyway?

Welcome to “What ever happened with,” Billy Penn’s ongoing series that will look at older stories that may have been forgotten about or otherwise not followed up on. Whether it’s a delayed development project or an unsolved murder mystery, “What ever happened with” strives to tell you what’s up with that Philly thing you might have forgotten about.

Update 4 p.m. Tuesday:

We’ve been made aware mayoral candidate and current state Sen. Anthony Williams wrote a letter to the PLCB last summer opposing the move against beer gardens. See the full letter here. 

Original story:

As warm weather approaches, area vendors will start prepping for what became one of the most popular events of the summer last year: Outdoor beer gardens that are technically temporary but are actually kind of permanent. At least for the summer.

It’s a carefully interpreted loophole in the Pennsylvania liquor code that allows these outdoor beer havens to exist without a full liquor license, and last year, some legislators told the state Liquor Control Board that they had a “grave concern” over the loophole and complained that companies operating pop-up beer gardens were circumventing the spirit of the law.

Despite what those legislators said, the PLCB now contends nothing has changed since last year, and it plans to continue issuing licenses in the exact same manner it did last year.

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Visit Philly’s 2014 seasonal Beer Garden Series at The Oval. (Photo courtesy of M. Fischetti for Visit Philly)

Last summer, thousands of people descended upon beer gardens like Spruce Street Harbor Park, Eakins Oval on the Parkway and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s pop-up near 15th and South Streets. Spruce Street Harbor Park, operated and built by the Delaware Riverfront Corporation, reported seeing nearly 20,000 people in the first weekend alone.

The gardens turned previously unused spaces into happening summer destinations, but as the city was experiencing the pop-up boom last year, four state legislators rained on the parade and sent the aforementioned letter to the PLCB. Those lawmakers — Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, Rep. Paul Costa, D-Allegheny, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, and Sen Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny — haven’t said whether or not they will renew their call to change the law again this year.

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The 2014 PHS pop-up beer garden at 15th and South streets (Photo courtesy of M. Fischetti for Visit Philly)

Taylor, who represents parts of the Riverwards and the Northeast, didn’t respond to calls seeking information. But as lawmakers are grappling with a $2 billion deficit, a pension problem and an education crisis, it seems these lawmakers have some other things to deal with that isn’t shutting down Philly’s successful beer garden scene.

Here’s how the loophole works: Companies or bars that already have liquor licenses in Philly operate the beer gardens under what’s called an “off-premises catering license,” according to PLCB Deputy Chief Counsel Robert McAteer. He says that individuals who hold one or more viable liquor licenses apply for the catering license through a one-page application and $500 for each license.

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Visitors to Spruce Street Harbor Park, which saw almost 20,000 visitors during its 2014 opening weekend, can sip beers on the waterfront. (Photo courtesy of M. Edlow for Visit Philly)

The catering license was put in place in 2012 for exactly what it sounds like: To make it easier for companies to cater one-day events like weddings or formal gatherings. But companies in Philly operating pop-up beer gardens purchase the licenses for each day they want to operate, and each holder of a liquor license is entitled to buy up to 50 individual licenses in order to operate on unlicensed property.

In addition, the licenses are capped at five hours, so beer gardens open for longer than that actually have to purchase two licenses for the day, and any beer gardens wanting to operate for more than 50 five-hour increments must utilize more than one individual’s liquor license. This can be done when management companies partner with bars to put on the events — each bar can individually apply for 50 five-hour licenses.

Philly.com’s Don Russell did the math on this: It seems these companies could open a full-time bar with about $10,000 in these licenses, saving them a bunch of cash compared to a full liquor license that can cost six figures.

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