City, Boston State Delegation Looking to Cooperate;City Requests 151 New Licenses from State Leaders Over 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 are looking this year to cooperate in releasing more than 150 new liquor licenses over three years in creative ways – a way cited as a part of a plan to spur economic development across the city.

In a meeting this month 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 the city, creating more dynamic licenses for stagnant 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 Census-based population growth alone.

In materials submitted to the state leaders, the City indicated it had learned great lessons from the 2014 liquor license 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.

Mayor Martin Walsh’s office said 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.

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 flamed 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 to the City.

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.

The new outreach effort and potential new legislation is aimed at expanding on the successes of 2014, while also putting in some new twists to help areas that could improve through economic development with a new dining spot. 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.

The new licenses are a help to small business owners who often lack the capital to buy a liquor license on the open market, with figures approaching $400,000 to purchase an existing license. That barrier could be eliminated, especially in the neighborhoods, with an influx of new licenses.

Some initial criticisms, however, come from existing license holders who purchased licenses on the open market for huge sums of money. Those licenses – much like the conundrum with taxi medallions – are devalued by the release of new licenses. That, it was said, is as much of a small business killer as the situation for those trying to get a license.

That, some said, was something that should probably be considered in any bill going before the State Legislature to release so many new licenses.

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