If approved, a proposal to add seven full liquor licenses will be sent to the state legislature
By Dusty Christensen
NORTHAMPTON — The City Council will decide Thursday evening whether to increase the number of all-alcohol liquor licenses the city can offer to entertainment venues and restaurants.
Currently, Northampton only has 32 all-liquor licenses, all of which are spoken for. State law sets a quota on the amount of those licenses that a municipality can issue based on its size. Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra has put forward a proposal to add seven “above-quota” licenses in the city, allowing more establishments to serve a full range of alcoholic drinks.
“Now more than ever we’re hearing from existing, and also hopeful restaurateurs, that to be able to make it they really feel like an all-alcohol license is necessary,” Sciarra said at a Community Resources Committee meeting on Feb. 8.
If passed in the City Council on Thursday, the proposal would then head to the state Legislature, which would have to approve it.
Liquor licenses have been the subject of controversy and contention in Northampton for years.
Most of the city’s liquor licenses can be sold by establishments and have previously drawn as much as six figures during auctions. In 2018, La Veracruzana bought its license for $62,259 from PeoplesBank.
But after the COVID-19 pandemic began, they’ve gone for less, according to numbers that Sciarra’s office provided. In 2021, Majestic bought one from the The World War II Club for $20,000, NoHo Social LLC purchased one from Pine Grove Golf Club for $16,000 and Highbrow paid Bistro Les Gras $25,000 for its license. Last year, Tellus purchased the license that Patria gave up for $36,000.
The city’s License Commission has also previously had to revoke licenses when businesses were accused of sitting on them.
That was the case in 2014, when the commission revoked a liquor license owned by businessman Eric Suher that was sitting idle for five years. The city eventually sued him to get it back.
In 2016, state legislation increased the number of all-alcohol licenses the city has by four. Those licenses revert back to the city when an establishment closes, which would also happen with the seven licenses Sciarra now wants to add.
“The goal here is to not make this have value in the secondary market, to not add these licenses to that undesirable creation of a financial institution that does not benefit the residents of Northampton by making these return to the city the second they close,” Sciarra’s chief of staff, Alan Wolf, told councilors at the Feb. 8 Community Resources meeting.
Those licenses are not sold but given out based on a lottery.
In January, one of those lotteries took place when the license previously held by Sylvester’s Restaurant came up for grabs after the restaurant closed last year. Paul and Elizabeth’s ultimately won the license, leaving three other businesses — The Dirty Truth, Teapot and Jake’s — empty-handed.
“There is so much interest in the spirits industry that it is something that is very valuable for any bar or restaurant to be serving,” Dirty Truth owner Kyle Anderson told the Community Resources committee, supporting the increase in all-alcohol licenses.
At that meeting, councilors by a unanimous vote passed the proposal back to the full City Council favorably after hearing from several business owners.
Wolf read a letter from hopeful restaurateur Polly Normand, who said she wanted to open a restaurant downtown last fall but said she couldn’t make the finances work without an all-alcohol license. She said that liquor has the best profit margin in the restaurant industry, it has the longest shelf life and is the least labor intensive part of the business.
Not everyone was in support of the proposal, however.
City resident Heather Warner, who was previously the coalition manager for Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth, or SPIFFY, said that the amount of alcohol establishments is linked to increased alcohol consumption. She noted that the City Council just limited the number of cannabis shops in the city for that very reason.
“I really appreciate that everyone cares about downtown and I just wish we could get more creative about how to make a vibrant downtown that doesn’t just include substances,” Warner said.
The City Council meets Thursday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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