Officials Look to Add 151 New Liquor Licenses in Three Years

By Seth Daniel

Putting last year’s low-level feud over control of liquor licenses for Boston in the past, Mayor Martin Walsh and the Boston state delegation, including Charlestown, are looking this year to cooperate in releasing more than 150 new liquor licenses in creative ways to applicants as a way of spurring economic development across the city.

In a meeting last week at City Hall to follow up on the bi-annual Boston State Delegation luncheon with the mayor, members held a discussion of how to move forward in creating more liquor licenses for places like Charlestown, while also creating more dynamic licenses for other areas of the city – while also preventing new licenses from areas already believed to be saturated. The State Legislature, in a nod to days past, controls the release of liquor licenses to Boston, while most other communities’ liquor licenses are governed by population growth.

In materials submitted to the state leaders, the City indicated it had learned great lessons from the 2014 bill, and that communities thrive when people can live, work, shop and eat in their own neighborhoods. That vitality, read the materials, only comes when local food establishments contribute to the area.

“There remains an unmet demand for additional liquor licenses so that Boston can continue to attract new businesses and restaurants,” read the materials.

The plan outlined the release of 151 non-transferrable licenses for Boston over three years, licenses that would revert back to the City when not being used and could not be sold on the open market. The licenses would break down as follows:

  • 10 citywide all alcohol licenses per year over three years.
  • Five all alcohol licenses per year over three years (total of 15 for each neighborhood) for each of the following neighborhoods: Dorchester, Eastie, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Mission Hill and Roxbury.
  • Five all alcohol licenses per year for three years for Main Streets Districts.
  • One license for the Lawn on D at the South Boston Convention Center.

Charlestown is said to likely be eligible under the plan for the neighborhood specific licenses – which are far less expensive than those on the open market – due to its status as an Urban Renewal Area and its Chapter 91 waterfront area. Previously, restaurants in the Town had to compete against big interests downtown, in the Seaport and in the Back Bay/Fenway neighborhoods for citywide licenses. Otherwise, they had to be purchased on the very-expensive open market, where a transferrable license is said to go for around $400,000.

Mayor Martin Walsh’s office told the Patriot Bridge they are looking at licenses at part of the overall economic development planning initiatives for neighborhoods. Rather than just permission to sell liquor, they are now seeing them – from the experiences garnered in a 2014 bill – as ways to revive business areas that need a shot in the arm.

“Liquor licenses are an important economic development tool in every neighborhood of Boston and Mayor Walsh looks forward to working with the Boston City Council and members of the Boston State Delegation to ensure that Boston has a sufficient number of licenses,” he said in a statement.

Reached after the meeting, Charlestown State Rep. Dan Ryan said he was encouraged by the conversation and the idea of using restaurants as economic engines in neighborhoods like Charlestown that have been mostly shut out of the restaurant revolution going on in other areas of Boston.

“These are good conversations,” he said. “New licenses could be shaped around community needs and planning rather than who has industry clout or wealth.”

The move would be accomplished through a bill filed at the State House by the Boston delegation.

Last year, a statewide move got underway to remove liquor licenses from the purview of the State Legislature. This inflamed a disagreement between the state delegation and the City Council and Mayor Walsh. While Boston leaders wanted their licenses released from state control, believing in total local control, state leaders weren’t confident they wanted to cede that power.

The conflict resulted in a stalemate where Boston made no progress in getting more licenses and reforming the current license structure.

Last fall, the License Commission gave out the final batch of licenses that came as a result of a 2014 compromise bill between the City and the state delegation that released 75 licenses over three years.

Charlestown has routinely been on the losing end of the liquor license saga over the last few years. The Town has been between a rock and a hard place due to the fact that most of the new neighborhood licenses are restricted to Main Street districts or economically disadvantaged areas – and the Town qualifies under neither.

As a result, prime economic development opportunities in areas like Main Street and Bunker Hill Street are believed to have been missed with the advent of local restaurants as economic engines – something that has revived many similar neighborhood districts all over Boston, but to date, not in Charlestown.

Only one all alcohol liquor license has been given to the Town out of the 2014 batch – that going to Monument 251 Restaurant last fall. However, at the same time, Sweet Rice Restaurant lost out on its bid for a liquor license. Also, many in the Town point to empty storefronts along Main Street and once-thriving storefronts that are now residential – and say there is room for a few more establishments like Monument 251.

The new outreach effort and potential new legislation is aimed at doing just that. Rather than creating barrooms or troubled “restaurants,” the idea is to use restaurants with full liquor licenses as ways to generate economic development in stalled out areas.

State Rep. Ryan said he was encouraged by the meeting, and said it presented a much better opportunity for Charlestown than any of the previous deals. The 2014 license agreement, brokered by Councilor Ayanna Pressley, wasn’t something Ryan said he totally agreed with, but it came just after he took office and had been brokered before he was even in office.

“I appreciate the City is looking at increased licenses as a  focus for larger Economic Development planning, not just as licenses on their own,” he said. “The 2014 bill focused on empowerment zones and Main Streets areas, which Charlestown doesn’t have. But with a ‘where as’ here or there, the next bill can make Charlestown eligible through our Urban Renewal designation or our Chapter 91 waterfront planning.”

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