After hearing mostly support Tuesday night for doing away with the state's private-club membership requirements for drinkers, liquor commissioner Bobbie Coray said it's time to start drafting legislation to make the change.

"I still don't find any compelling reason to have private clubs," Coray told reporters after nearly two hours of testimony at the second of two public hearings on the proposed change held by the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

"Now what will happen is the department will begin to write legislation," she said, predicting that will take several months. The 2009 Legislature, which begins meeting in January, is expected to have the final say on changing the law.

Last month, the commission agreed 4-1 with Coray the department needed to look at coming up with a proposal to eliminate the applications and fees required to join private clubs, Utah's version of bars.

The change is backed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who has said tourism is being hurt by the state's decades-old private-club system. The Utah Hospitality Association is also readying an initiative petition to put the issue before voters in 2010 if necessary.

Tuesday's nearly two-hour hearing on whether the private club system should stay or go attracted about 75 people. Many echoed the governor's concerns about the impact private clubs have on the economy.

"It's about hospitality," said Joel Racker of the Utah Tourism Industry Coalition, an organization that represents the lodging, restaurant, ski and convention industries. "We want to make people feel welcome."

Michael Kaplan, who teaches marketing at the University of Utah and other schools including some overseas, said the state is seen as "a laughingstock" because of the perception that visitors can't drink alcohol here.

Several Utahns said the extra cost of buying memberships, as well as the requirement that they fill out applications, prevented them from patronizing private clubs. "I think we forget about our local tourists," said Heather Culligan.

But there were private club owners who said they like the current private-club system, which allows them to turn away customers unwilling to pay a minimum of $4 for a three-week membership or at least $12 for an annual membership.

The fees collected are kept by the private clubs to help cover their administrative costs. Coray has said any proposed change would allow private clubs to continue as they are if that's what the owners want to do.

"I like the memberships. I know who's in the club. I have all the information on them," said Jack Carlton, owner of the Three Alarm Saloon in Midvale. "People say it costs us business because it's so hard to get a drink. I just don't buy that."

And several people told the commission that they don't want the law changed because they believe it will increase alcohol-related crime, including drunk driving and underage consumption.

"Please don't compromise our heritage by promoting an image of drinking and partying because it isn't reflective of our way of life," said Steve Christopher, owner of a souvenir shop in downtown Salt Lake City.


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