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Voters support Woburn’s bid to issue beer and wine permits

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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Following a strong show of support from voters, Woburn officials are seeking state legislation that would put the city on a path toward awarding eight beer and wine licenses to restaurants with 50 or more seats.

Woburn has 59 all-alcoholic licenses, including 51 for on-premises service at restaurants and other establishments, and eight for package stores. But owing to votes cast by residents more than 40 years ago, it has no authority to grant any of the eight beer and wine licenses allotted to it under state law.

The City Council and Mayor Scott D. Galvin in August agreed to seek the legislation provided voters registered support for it in a nonbinding question at the Nov. 8 city election. Voters did so resoundingly, with 3,369 casting their ballots in favor of the question and 1,337 voting against it.

The special act would allow the city to place a referendum before voters in next year’s state election asking if the city should be authorized to grant the beer and wine licenses.

Councilor at Large Richard M. Haggerty said the proposal is an attempt to boost the city’s economy, particularly in the downtown area.

“It is not our responsibility to create jobs, but it is our responsibility to create a climate where people will want to do business in our city,’’ he said, arguing that the ability to obtain a beer and wine license will spur more restaurants to locate in Woburn.

“A lot of restaurants out there today, while they make money on the meal, they make more money on the sale of alcohol,’’ he said. “Generally, the more money a business is able to make, the more likely it is to hire more people and the more likely it is to thrive.’’

Proponents say that the option to provide beer and wine licenses would be of particular value because all 41 of the all-alcoholic licenses allotted by law are currently held by establishments.

The only all-alcoholic licenses available are the eight extra ones that the city, through a special act this year, gained the ability to award in specific areas within the Commerce Way Overlay District.

Proponents say that a beer and wine license is a better option for some businesses, particularly smaller restaurants.

“The small mom and pop restaurants, those little restaurants that seat 50 people, this will give them a chance,’’ said Paul Meaney, executive director of the Woburn Business Association, which supports the beer and wine license proposal.

City Clerk William Campbell said that under state law adopted after Prohibition, Woburn and other municipalities had to regularly vote on whether to make use of the various alcohol licenses allotted to them.

In 1966, he said, the law was amended to provide that if the outcome was the same in three consecutive elections, the matter was considered settled and could not be placed again on the ballot except through a petition signed by 10 percent of voters.

Starting in 1944, Woburn voters rejected questions allowing for the general issuance of all-alcoholic and beer and wine licenses, but approved the issuance of all-alcoholic licenses specifically for package stores, Campbell said. Then in 1966, 1968, and 1970 they voted to allow all-alcoholic licenses for hotels, clubs, and veterans’ groups.

In those same three years, voters again rejected beer and wine licenses, and because the outcome was the same in three consecutive elections, the matter has not come up again, Campbell said.

In 1976, 1978, and 1980, voters agreed to allow all-alcoholic licenses for restaurants and function halls with 100 or more seats, Campbell said, adding that it is not immediately clear from city records how those questions were placed on the ballot.

Campbell said that provided the special act is adopted as proposed, the city could gain the authority to place the referendum before voters in next year’s state election without a voter petition. And he said the city would not have to seek passage of the same referendum at subsequent elections.

Campbell noted that two towns - Belmont in 1997 and Lancaster in 2001 - passed similar bills.

Galvin said he and councilors got the idea to seek the special act when an advisory from the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission last summer reminded them that Woburn is entitled to eight beer and wine licenses.

“When you look at some of the different cities and towns around us that have thriving downtowns, it starts with a good restaurant base,” Galvin said. And he said whether they will be able to serve beer and wine is an important factor in deciding whether to make the investment in a restaurant.

“It definitely goes a long way in helping a restaurant to succeed,’’ he said.

Galvin said seeking the ability to issue beer and wine licenses is one of several steps he is advocating to bring greater vitality to the downtown. He said others are: developing a 60-space parking area on Magazine Hill, a city-owned parcel off Mann’s Court, and constructing a deck to add spaces to the city’s Walnut Hill parking lot.

The results of the recent ballot question provided a clear message that voters support the beer and wine license initiative, he said.

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