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Two years after Utah did away with the state's one-of-a-kind private club memberships, the severe shortage of liquor licenses has in effect created a moratorium of up to two years on adding bars that serve hard liquor.

On Thursday, liquor-control commissioners turned away 15 applicants from Salt Lake, Summit, Weber, Carbon, Unitah, and Grand counties because the state has run out of club licenses.

"Our hands are tied," said commission Chairman Sam Granato, whose four-year term ended Thursday. "What gets to me is the lost opportunity to hire more people and see our economy thrive."

The bottleneck comes after lawmakers earlier this year went against recommendations by the Legislature's auditors to ease quotas for liquor licenses, whose numbers are based on the state's population. Lawmakers, citing concerns about overconsumption, also refused to make any accommodations to inflated population estimates, which resulted in too many club licenses being handed out earlier this year.

Now, the state's population must increase by 93,600 people before any new club licenses become available to catch up to the quota.

In the meantime, no new clubs may open and no clubs may transfer their licenses to new owners.

Two years ago, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. spearheaded a drive to loosen Utah's liquor laws by successfully pushing to do away with a one-of-a-kind law that required people to purchase separate memberships for each club they entered. Granato and fellow departing commissioner Gordon Strachan backed that effort.

Gov. Gary Herbert is not expected to reappoint either to the five-member liquor board.

Although commissioners approved the transfer of seven existing licenses to new owners on Thursday, the board may no longer do so until the population quota is met. Population estimates are provided by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.

The inability to transfer club licenses killed a $25 million hotel deal in Park City, attorney Jay Gamble told the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. He added that the prospective owners refused to purchase the hotel when they learned they would not be able to assume the existing club permit.

Gamble said he and another lawyer have been involved in real estate sales and other business transactions totaling more than $50 million that could be derailed because of the lack of club licenses.

"I'm not sure the Legislature understood the cause and effect of failing to correct the club quota situation," said Gamble.

Gamble asked the commission to consider allowing new business owners to use existing permits until July 2012, when liquor licenses may be purchased on the open market. But Commissioner Richard Sperry said lawmakers could see such a policy "as an end run" after the Legislature decided against creating any more club licenses.

The Governor's Office projects that Utah's population will increase from 2.8 million to 2.85 million in the next fiscal year, starting in July. Based on the quota system, only about five new club licenses would become available (one license for every 7,850 people in the state). Because the department has over-allocated 11 licenses, it will take as much as two years to catch up, said department spokeswoman Vickie Ashby.

Commercial real-estate agent Cameron Simonsen with Coldwell Banker Commercial said it's unfortunate that lawmakers consider themselves business-friendly, while setting arbitrary numbers of liquor licenses, which he said harms economic development.

"There's already a fear that there's a shortage of liquor licenses in Utah," he said. "Too often, businesses expand out of Denver into Reno (Nev.) and Las Vegas — skipping over Utah. " Twitter@DawnHouseTrib —

New clubs

Thursday was the last day liquor commissioners could approve licenses for new owners who buy an existing club. Under a quota system, no more licenses will be approved until the state's population catches up with the number of licenses that have been issued. New clubs receiving existing licenses were:

'Bout Time Pub & Grub • opening at The Gateway in September.

'Bout Time Pub & Grub • 1754 W. 3500 South, West Valley City.

Club Sandpiper • 4002 S. Highland Drive, Millcreek.

Pitcher's Lounge at University Park Marriott • Salt Lake City.

Rail Center • 235 N. 500 West, Salt Lake City.

Rowdy Roxy's • 2172 S. 1900 West, West Haven.

745 Grill • 2429 N. Highway 158, Eden, opening to be announced.

Source: Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.