By Jim Clark
The City of Somerville has been working hard in its efforts to have a cap removed from its ability to grant liquor licenses to local businesses. In its latest bid, the city received word that the state legislature refused to grant such powers, but that a Home Rule Petition – allowing some 12 additional licenses to be made available – would be considered.
Last week, City Solicitor Frank Wright reported to the Board of Aldermen that the state legislature was disinclined to grant Somerville full control over licenses. In detailing the situation as it stands, Wright explained, “Previously, what the city has had is the quota system, but 10 of those licenses have been dedicated to Assembly Square. What will now be the case is that all forms of alcohol licenses will be citywide, and the legislature will provide, through this Home Rule Petition, 12 additional licenses dedicated to Assembly Square. So essentially, 10 additional licenses will be available throughout the city.”
Wright further explained that, “The quota is established by population. We are at quota right now. The city is entitled to 82 licenses, ten of which are designated for Assembly Square, which have not been issued, but the other 72 have been issued. So those 10 that are now designated for Assembly Square will be freed up to be issued throughout the city.”
Alderman Tony Lafuente felt that the state legislature does not appreciate the destination Somerville has become. “I will tell you that in the last three weeks I have been trying to recruit restaurateurs to come into Winter Hill, and the one thing I get is ‘What about liquor licenses?’” Lafuente lamented. “We have a world renowned chef who happens to live in Ward 4 that is going to be opening up a restaurant in the next year, and he called me just to get my ideas as a business person about how to set up a new business, and so on. I’m trying to encourage him to stay in Somerville and he says it’s a problem because of the liquor license.” Lafuente suggested that a delegation should be encouraged to undertake discussions with the State House to try and alleviate some of the issues at hand.
In addressing the Board on the matter, Mayor Curtatone said, “It makes no sense, the quota system. I can tell you, this was a long fought negotiation and we’ll take what we can get now and move forward, but who here will doubt that these [licenses] will be exhausted immediately?” The mayor further noted that restaurant owners were reluctant to do business in the city due to the uncertainty in the licensing process, as well as the costs associated with such licensing. “We have a model here that we have established with the Board of Aldermen and our Commission that’s being looked upon as a best practice. We made a conscious effort to break this false marketplace that if you’re a person that wants to invest in a small business, a restaurant, you have shell out what could be over $100,000 for a liquor license. At least now you have a nominal fee under the new system that, even though the licenses come back, you don’t have to pay that much, so you can hit the ground running. If those small independently owned restaurants had to put up that kind of cash we wouldn’t have that really eclectic mix and dynamic that we have in Somerville right now.”
“It’s a regulatory issue going back to the days of Prohibition,” Curtatone added. “To protect ourselves, so we wouldn’t drink ourselves under the table.”
Additionally, the mayor also pointed out that there are neighboring cities that are uncapped. “It’s a competition issue also.”
The Board voted unanimously to approve the Home Rule Petition, sending it on to the state legislature for further action.