By Seth Daniel
On Sept. 1, the last 25 liquor licenses from the 2014 neighborhood-friendly license initiative spearheaded by Councilor Ayanna Pressley will be released, but Charlestown restaurants will lose out on getting a shot on at least 20 of those licenses – having to compete with downtown, Back Bay, Fenway and other high-profile destinations for the remaining five Citywide licenses.
The licenses are the final one-third of 75 licenses granted by the state to the special program in 2014 when Pressley’s initiative got approval of the State Legislature. That highly-successful initiative looked to steer lucrative liquor licenses to disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Mission Hill Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park and East Boston. Charlestown didn’t qualify any longer as disadvantaged, but another stipulation allowed Main Streets districts to quality for the discount licenses as well, opening up corridors in the South End, for instance.
But with no Main Streets district and no argument for being a low-income community, Charlestown restaurants and potential restauranteurs looking at Charlestown cannot qualify for the so-called “neighborhood licenses,” and must compete for the citywide licenses with much-larger entities.
“It’s frustrating,” said Councilor Sal LaMattina. “It’s not right for Charlestown because we don’t have enough restaurants on places like Main Street and Bunker Hill Street. We have some great restaurants now, but we want more restaurants in these neighborhoods. There are a lot of young professionals and families that would be drawn to the business district if there were more restaurants. Restaurant owners tell me they can’t make the neighborhood restaurants work, really, without a liquor license of some kind. I don’t know what we’ll do about this, but we’ll have to try to do something to include Charlestown.”
Already, there are a lot of businesses that are vacant on the western edge of Main Street, and most everyone agrees that the Town could use a few more dining options. An area like Medford Street seems to be a prime location for the neighborhood licenses, as they were meant to spur activity in areas that don’t have places to eat or drink – known as “food deserts.”
Councilor Pressley said the point of the program was to bring economic development, wealth creation and good jobs to business districts in Boston that haven’t had restaurants open in decades. Many times, the barrier to getting a liquor license – a key to any restaurant business plan – was too high as purchasing a license could cost more than $200,000. It was a non-starter she said, until the Boston license cap was lifted in 2014 to allow the three-year roll out – which is now coming to an end in September. Part of that program targeted many licenses for only certain neighborhoods.
She said she understands the unique problem in Charlestown, and said it’s all the more reason to push for local control of licenses at the state level. Mayor Martin Walsh and the Council recently filed for local control of licenses at the State House, but were denied along with every other City. Boston is also unique in that its licenses are capped, while other cities and towns can gain licenses with population growth.
Pressley said for Charlestown to benefit, local control has to come on board. Right now, the state controls liquor licenses in Boston through the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC).
“Councilor LaMattina is in a district that is unique because you have the North End with 0.2 square miles and 99 liquor licenses, which is total saturation, and then you have a neighborhood like Charlestown that would like to have more restaurants and fewer banks,” she said. “We have looked at that same situation in South Boston, where some of the side streets could use these licenses to fill empty storefronts. When we have full local control, we can make these determinations for places like Charlestown. Right now, it’s first come first serve (for those five citywide licenses).”
State Rep. Dan Ryan said something needs to be done about the liquor license problem in Charlestown and that there are empty storefronts that could fill up with good neighborhood restaurants. He said the discussion is good for the Town because it could open a door to talking about why there is no Main Streets program.
However, he said he is firmly against local control of the licenses in Boston, as it would take a Charlestown voice out of the discussion in what he described as, mostly, a power grab by the City.
“I trust Mayor Walsh and the City Council to do what is in the best interest of Boston during this economic transformation,” he said. “For me, giving up complete control of the liquor licenses cap was not about this year, next year, this administration or this City Council. It was about one extremely small neighborhood having a seat at the table well into the future. It took Charlestown nearly 40 years to have someone from this square mile hold an elected seat in the local system of checks and balances. It would be a complete disservice to my neighborhood to give up a piece of that oversight. Do you think anyone else is sitting around with their first thought being ‘How will this impact Charlestown?’ Of course not. And they shouldn’t. That’s my job.”
Nevertheless, he and LaMattina said that maybe it would be time to look towards a Main Streets program, or at least discuss the possibility so that prospective restauranteurs could look to Bunker Hill Street or Main Street for new opportunities – as they have done in large numbers in Dorchester.
“I have always been in support of the City of Boston getting full local control of these licenses,” LaMattina said. “I know the mayor tried to get it passed at the State House and it didn’t make it. Hopefully we can apply again and get a bill passed to help us….Charlestown doesn’t have a Main Streets. Maybe we need to look into filing to get one designated. Something needs to happen to allow Charlestown to get some licenses. What’s happening now isn’t right.”
Ryan said he’s ready for the discussion too.
“I’ve always questioned why Charlestown, with the oldest Main Street in the country, was not part of the City’s Main Streets program,” he said. “When I got my first job in government back in 1999, this was one of the first programs looked into for Charlestown. City Hall was open to expanding to Charlestown. But, it never happened. My guess is the leadership in Charlestown at the time didn’t see the need for it. It was a real lost opportunity. A lot of the key retail space is gone now. But, I do believe we have tremendous opportunities ahead to revisit and reshape our small business sector.”