Lake Highlands is dry. Nothing new there – it has been that way since Prohibition.

The law forbids the sale of alcohol in Lake Highlands anywhere east of White Rock Creek until you reach Garland.

But we don’t seem to mind.

After all, stocking the fridge or liquor cabinet just takes a short trip to a string of package stores that line the wet/dry boundaries.

And getting a glass of wine or a cocktail with dinner is easy enough. That’s because most of the restaurants within the dry area operate as private clubs, which means they can serve alcoholic beverages by doing a little extra legwork, paying a little extra money, and having their guests fill out a bit of paperwork.

But many of them say it’s no big deal.

“It’s just another level of steps,” says Ray Washburne of The M Crowd Restaurant Group, which operates 23 restaurants in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, including Mi Cocina at Kingsley Square.

But, more importantly, do those extra steps have any bearing on what comes in or, more importantly, what stays out of Lake Highlands as far as commercial development is concerned?

There are those who think maybe it does.

“We’re struggling in Lake Highlands for a better mix of restaurants and retail,” says Michael Miles, a neighborhood resident and chairman of the Dallas Northeast Chamber of Commerce. “One has to wonder if there is a correlation there.”

THE COMMUNITY

Although Washburne says he has no problem complying with the way things are now (see sidebar for details of the law), and operating the Mi Cocina at Kingsley Square as a private club doesn’t hurt his business, he says he wouldn’t mind seeing the law change.

“It’s just a hassle…and an extra cost for us and extra cost for the customer,” he says of the private club process.

Hans Van Loenen agrees that being in a dry area creates additional costs and work. Van Loenen and his wife Clare have owned and operated ST Cafe at Skillman and Audelia in Lake Highlands for 15 years.

“Because it is dry, there are extra costs. You have to have a special license. You can’t have your liquor delivered – you have to go pick it up. You have to have a special license for your car even to pick up the liquor,” he says.

(According to Carolyn Beck of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, it’s not legal for a wholesaler to deliver alcohol to a dry area. And to transport alcohol to a restaurant in a dry area, you must have a local card permit registering the vehicles transporting the liquor. The permit costs $86 a year, and as many vehicles as the permit holder wants can be registered under the permit.)

For Van Loenen, the extra work is worthwhile, not because he makes a profit on the alcohol he serves, but because his customers often like to enjoy a glass of wine with their meal.

He says he doesn’t think changing the law would make things any better – though he admits it might make Lake Highlands a more viable location for certain types of restaurants.

“I don’t know how much it would change. If it’s not dry, then it would attract more chain restaurants, and I don’t know if we want that in the neighborhood,” he says. “If chains come in, it will destroy the neighborhood restaurants.”

Former councilperson Donna Halstead also says making Lake Highlands a wet area could potentially bring more harm than good to our neighborhood, especially with the accessibility of the Skillman corridor.

“If it were to go wet, we’d see more bars and clubs,” she says. “That’s something the neighborhood would not be comfortable with. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with it.”

But there are those who’d like to see the law change.

“I think it’s the main reason why there’s not a whole lot of restaurants in Lake Highlands,” says Highlands Cafe co-owner Tommy Steele of the ban on alcohol sales.

Steele says if the area became wet, it could help the entire neighborhood become more economically viable.

THE DEVELOPERS

Councilman Bill Blaydes has been a big player in attempts to beef up the commercial development in Lake Highlands. He says being dry has drawbacks when it comes to bringing investors in.

“Certainly, all the developers that I have talked to about the Town Center have the opinion that it would improve their capability to bring in a variety of tenants to the center.”

But, he says, echoing Halstead’s sentiment: “I don’t think the community would accept it. I think we’d have an opposition as big as when that strip club opened on Plano Road (PT’s).

“It’s not worth the fight,” he says, “especially when we have Unicard capabilities.”

Representatives of TradeMark Realty, the original development companies that pulled out of the Town Center deal, could not be reached for comment. JPI, an organization involved with development in Lake Highlands, declined to comment.

But Susan Steelhammer, vice president of property management for the West Village, a town center-type property in Dallas’ uptown area similar to what Blaydes and company have in mind for Lake Highlands, says developing in any area really depends on the support of the community.

“It’s just extra steps,” she says of the private club system. “I don’t know if [staying dry] would prevent development [in Lake Highlands]. It just depends. If you have the support of the community – do it. But if you don’t have the support, I’d guess we’d go to the other side of town.”

Steelhammer says she’s not aware that her company, which is owned by Henry S. Miller, has ever developed in a dry area.

But Washburne, who also is president and CEO of Charter Holdings, the company redeveloping Kingsley Square, doesn’t think the law as it is keeps potential businesses from setting up shop in the area. In fact, he says he’s bringing in a variety of tenants to the strip center, including a locally owned Italian restaurant, a burger joint and nationally operated L.A. Fitness.

When it comes to opening in a certain location, Washburne says: “I don’t think [the law] makes a difference.”

Neither does Chris Barnes, a representative of Brinker International, the company responsible for chains such as Chili’s, Corner Bakery, On The Border, Maggiano’s, Macaroni Grill and Rockfish Grill.

“We operate in wet areas and in dry areas. Our No. 1 priority is to comply with all the local laws involving liquor. We’re pretty used to it,” he says, pointing to the 20-year-old Chili’s in Casa Linda Plaza that operates as a private club.

“It has not really impacted our decision to open in any community. It does impact business as far as registering people for membership – it takes a little more.

“It really all depends on the location,” Barnes says. “The overriding criteria are whether they are convenient to nearby residential and commercial development and whether they have good street visibility. There are other factors, too. It’s never one issue that governs a decision.”

Still, as Miles says, you have to wonder why Lake Highlands continues to struggle for commercial development, and if being dry has anything to do with that struggle.

“As a chamber, we really haven’t delved into that yet,” Miles says, “partly because we are the chamber for Lakewood and Lake Highlands. In Lakewood (which is a wet area), we seem to have struck an appropriate balance. But the Lake Highlands side of the equation is more difficult.”

But for one local restaurateur, the math isn’t so complicated.

“If Lake Highlands would’ve been wet, then yes, we would’ve considered a location in Lake Highlands,” says Mariano Martinez, who recently reopened Mariano’s at Skillman and Abrams, just south of the dry boundary.

In addition to looking for a space close to the original Mariano’s location, which was in Old Town for 32 years, Martinez says finding a spot in a wet area was just as significant.

“That was a huge factor in deciding to go there. We have four La Hacienda Ranches, Mariano’s and Mariano’s Hacienda. Out of six [restaurants], we do have one private club location.”

Of that location, he says, “it’s really difficult to get a license and operate.

“It’s something we try to avoid.”