Alcohol sales may hold cure for downtown

By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2011

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Granting liquor licenses to smaller restaurants is one of a number of options Wellesley officials and business leaders are exploring to help reverse an uptick in downtown retail vacancies.

A town task force is hammering out recommendations on ways to reenergize Wellesley Square, with a public meeting slated for next month.

One idea being discussed would let restaurants with at least 50 seats apply for an alcohol sales license, according to Meghan Jop, the town’s planning director; the current minimum size is 100 seats.

Other concepts being examined by the Wellesley Square Initiative include aesthetic touches, such as hanging flower baskets, and practical upgrades, such as freeing up more storefront parking.

“Given what is going on in the market the last couple of days, these are challenging times,’’ said Rob Skolnick, president of longtime Wellesley Square retailer E.A. Davis & Co. and a board member of the Wellesley Chamber of Commerce. “It really requires you to stay on top of your game. There is so much competition in so many different areas than there was before.’’

The task force was formed this spring amid concern over a growing number of vacant storefronts in Wellesley Square and in other parts of the town’s sprawling commercial district, Jop noted.

However, new stores and retailers have continued to move into Wellesley while some established businesses expand.

Upscale yogurt chain Pinkberry just opened in Linden Square, not far from where the Gelato Café closed last fall, while a J.P. Licks ice cream cafe has replaced the Body Shop on Central Street in Wellesley Square, according to Jop.

Whole Foods is giving tours to show off its new and expanded grocery store, set to open Monday in the old Star Market location at 442 Washington St.

Yet the departures have been frequent, raising concerns and questions about whether this is just the product of a still sluggish economy or other factors.

Two longtime Wellesley Square businesses, a Different Drummer and Rugged Bear, closed in the past year, joining Talbots Kids, which closed in 2008, Jop said. Only the former Different Drummer storefront at 41 Central St. has found a new tenant, with Isabel Harvey, a women’s jewelry and gift store, moving over from Linden Square.

“Wellesley has been very insulated from the economic downturn,’’ Jop said. “The Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board became concerned over vacancies in the commercial district.’’

The task force, whose members include selectmen and planning officials, has spent months interviewing store and property owners.

One emerging goal is to find ways to lure more shoppers downtown during evening hours, and, by doing so, encourage major store owners and retailers to extend their hours, Jop said.

And one way to do this is to encourage more restaurants, especially smaller, chef-owned establishments, to set up shop downtown, which is more feasible if they are allowed to serve alcohol, Jop said.

While no decision has been made about what type of liquor license might be made available for smaller restaurants, it would probably be limited, as in Needham, to beer and wine, Jop said.

And while the idea is under review, there is no guarantee that it will be adopted, she said, noting, “Wellesley typically has had a fairly strict stand on liquor in the town.”

In weighing this option, Wellesley officials say they have been encouraged by what has happened in Needham, where there has been a big increase in the number of boutique restaurants over the past few years.

Needham restaurants that have at least 50 seats can apply for a license to serve wine and beer.

“We have seen a lot of new restaurants come in, and the possibility of being able to serve wine and beer probably helps,’’ said Devra Bailin, Needham’s economic development director.

Wellesley officials are also looking at ways to free up more parking spaces near storefronts, possibly by encouraging businesses to have employees park in nearby lots, said Michael Zehner, the town’s assistant planning director.

There is also interest in helping spiff up the appearance of Wellesley Square, possibly with hanging flower baskets. Another idea calls for adding a kiosk or directory to help shoppers find their way around, he said.

However, not every change that Wellesley officials are exploring is likely to be a hit among downtown business owners.

In a bid to raise more commercial revenue, town officials are looking at shifting to a split-rate property tax system that would have a separate, and likely higher, figure for businesses.

Wellesley now has a single tax rate for residential and commercial properties.

Given the challenges downtown businesses are facing, a boost in taxes could be hard to deal with, Skolnick said.

“That is a huge concern,’’ he said. “It would be another barrier to entry.’’