Some 30 people attended Monday's meeting to discuss whether the city should support a home-rule petition for a fifth retail liquor license.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A new package store's pursuit of an all-alcohol license was roundly denounced at Monday night's Public Safety Committee meeting by potential competitors and community members.
Vins & Viandes, also known as Steeple City Liquors, has asked that the city support a home-rule petition to the Legislature to procure a liquor license after its application was rejected 2-1 by the License Commission because the city is already over its state quota.
More than 30 people attended the meeting to offer their opinions to the Public Safety Committee, which is expected to give a recommendation to the full City Council in July.
The matter was referred to the committee in May.
Some accused the company of trying to "skirt the law" and the administration of favoring a large company that had invested in the city over small business.
"This isn't about competition, this is about favoritism," charged Robert West, the third-generation owner of West Package & Variety Stores. "It doesn't smell right."
Mayor Richard Alcombright, who said he had "stood in front" of the request to delay it as long as possible, responded that his office was simply a mechanism for V&V to legally bring a home-rule petition to the City Council.
"I brought it forward simply because I could and simply because they asked," he said. "They have the right, whether they were here for 100 minutes or 100 years."
It would be up to the City Council to determine if the process would continue to Beacon Hill, said the mayor.
"There are times that the council has done things that the people have petitioned," agreed Committee Chairman Keith Bona. "It's not uncommon ... to say that we're skirting the law ... this is a legal action that's allowed."
Bona said he wanted to hear as much as possible from the public and a second meeting was set for the second week in July to continue the conversation.
Among the topics Bona and members Kate Merrigan and Benjamin Lamb said stood out to them from the hearing was concerns over setting a precedent, equity between applicants, public safety (including the possible proliferation of alcohol products), the value of current licenses and the effect on the city economy, limiting legal businesses, the home-rule petition process, and the reasoning behind the state's quota.
A number of people spoke during the nearly two-hour meeting — none in support of V&V.
Attorney F. Sydney Smithers IV, of Cain Hibbard & Myers, representing V&V's operator Louis Matney Jr. and Steeple City Plaza owner Neil Ellis, said the wine and beer store that opened last fall was a destination and needed a liquor license to be successful.
"We think the store has proven by his track record since it has opened that it is a safe place to buy beer and wine," he told the committee, pointing to the well-lighted parking lot in the large shopping center across from the police station as a deterrent to "malevolent goings-on."
"The reason we want this license is to better serve the public ... and make this a more viable and sustainable operation," Smithers said, adding that the store appears to draw customers from a wide area who "might engage in other economic activities for the good of the city."
He also gave the committee a petition with 1,100 signatures supporting V&V's request and said the Legislature had approved 40 home-rule petitions on additional alcohol licenses last year alone.
James Whitney, of the 80-year-old Whitney's Beverage Shop, said he didn't think V&V met the definition of "destination," usually used for economic redevelopment purposes. People are coming to North Adams for attractions like Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, then likely stopping for a bottle afterward, he postulated.
He also questioned how many of the 40 licenses cited by Smithers were for liquor or package stores and how many for restaurants, which Smithers was unable to answer.
"I don't think their petition means very much," said Whitney, handing over one of his own supporting his business, as did West and Mark Draper of Draper's Wine & Spirits.
All three said any public need was being met with the four stores currently open, one more than the state allows under the population rule of one license for every 5,000 people. There are about 13,500 people in the city.
Chairman Keith Bona said he had been told a legislative bill, S. 93, to give municipalities direct control over license quotas, was unlikely to pass this year.
"There's a reason we do it by population: It comes down to the need," said Robert Moulton Jr., a former city councilor and mayoral candidate. "You've got local people here who paid a premium for their license ... they've been in business for years ... they fill the need. I think there's no question the need's being met."
West and Draper said they had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their businesses and licenses, the value of which would be diluted with additional licenses, and that, like them, Matney could have purchased one.
There was some disagreement over the circumstances when V&V had apparently broached a possible purchase with one or more licenseholders that failed for various reasons. Real estate agent Michael Hernandez, speaking for Joseph Lora III, owner of River Street Package Store, strongly suggested that Lora might now be in a position to sell his liquor license — maybe.
Richard Sheehan, who has owned Ed's Variety package store for 19 years, repeated that should V&V get a liquor license through the home-rule process, he would be the next in line for one.
But while the store owners stressed the economic disadvantage to their long-running businesses, or their strong commitment to the community through thousands of dollars donated to local causes, or how unfair it would be for V&V to get a license with city help for a few hundred dollars, Bonnie Whitney spoke to the problem of alcohol in the community.
She told the committee of her very personal confrontations with alcohol — relatives killed in drinking-related accidents, an abusive, drunken former husband who beat her horribly.
"The more concentrated liquor stores you have, the more problems you have," Whitney said.