Patch.com reports about the public hearing held in Needham to debate allowing package stores in Needham. I absolutely support this concept; the “dry town” is an anachronism. There is NO evidence that having a package store or upscale wine shop in Needham would increase alcohol consumption among teenagers. Let’s not forget that businesses have to ID buyers and face severe consequences for failing to do so. And Needham is losing money — residents now go to Newton or neighboring towns to purchase alcohol, while downtown Needham storefronts sit empty.
Patch.com reports that those in support of lifting Needham’s dry status talked Tuesday evening about the convenience of having wine and beer sold in town and the potential for bringing dollars now spent out of town back to Needham. But those who were against changing the law argued that allowing retail sales of alcohol would just make it easier for local youth to get their hands on these beverages, calling the matter “a public health issue.”
About 75 people attended the selectmen’s public hearing on whether to allow retail sale of alcohol in town–the purchase of wine, beer and possibly liquor for consumption off-site. This type of business, referred to as a “package store,” has not been allowed in Needham for more than 75 years.
The town does allow the sale of alcohol in restaurants with more than 100 seats, and one-day licenses can be obtained for events where alcohol will be served on-site.
For more than an hour on Tuesday, Dec. 6, residents lined up at the microphone inside the James Hugh Powers Hall to speak on the issue.
Before the public comment portion, Council of Economic Advisors member Elizabeth Grimes reviewed the potential economic benefits of allowing alcohol sales in Needham, noting that it was difficult to collect exact numbers on the subject. She referenced the Food Marketing Institute’s annual retail purchase survey, which found that the average U.S. household with an annual income of $65,000 to $75,000 spends about $500 per year on alcohol and that alcohol makes up about 6 percent of the average American’s food budget.
She also estimated that Needham could see about $2,500 annually in additional license fees for alcohol sales. However, others later argued that any increase in fees would likely be offset by the cost of administering those licenses and additional police monitoring.
Patch.com reported that Grimes also said the council felt that allowing more store types could help fill up the vacant storefronts in downtown Needham, creating a more vibrant downtown and encouraging people to shop locally.
Needham Police Chief Phil Droney gave the law enforcement perspective, saying the change “will have an impact on the police department.” In particular, he was concerned about increased accessibility for juveniles and an already prevalent underage drinking problem in Needham and surrounding towns.
Maryalice Stamer, director of school health services for the Needham Public Schools, said she was concerned about increasing access to alcohol for local kids and urged the town “to hold the health and safety of children as the top priority.”
Other opponents to changing the law said allowing alcohol sales would change the town’s atmosphere and that part of the reason they had moved to Needham was because it was a dry town. (NOTE from Matt Fogelman — people moved to Needham because it was dry? I found that extremely hard to believe).
But others said that keeping package stores out of Needham would not prevent substance abuse and that kids would likely still go out of town to purchase alcohol, concerned about being identified here in town.
Central Avenue resident Jeff Heller, who has raised three children in Needham, said it was more important for parents to model appropriate alcohol use at home and to talk to their children about the issues of substance abuse rather than relying on the ban to keep alcohol away from their kids.
“If limiting the sale of alcohol in Needham was effective at helping our children, then I would say, what are the statistics?” Heller said. “Let’s look at the research. Are we any different than any other community because access is different?”
Greendale Avenue resident Carol Urwitz noted that the United States’ Prohibition did not necessarily prevent people from drinking and said that it would be better for parents to teach their children about responsible drinking than to try to keep these stores away from them.
“If we want resilient children, we have to teach them that there are choices to be made out there,” she said. “I think we’re being misguided and that we’re putting a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem, and I don’t even think the Band-Aid’s going to stay on.”
Proponents said they would like to see vacant storefronts filled with active businesses and that having wine and beer shops in town would encourage shoppers to spend at other nearby businesses rather than running those errands together in a neighboring town.
Selectmen did not debate the issue on Tuesday but said they would be discussing it at a later meeting. If the board decides to go forward with recommending a law change, there would still be much opportunity for public debate.
Town counsel David Tobin said the town could proceed in one of two ways. Needham could place a question on the local ballot in a state election by a petition signed by 10 percent of the town’s registered voters. The question would have to be passed at three consecutive elections to become law, but after the first approval, the town could begin issuing licenses.
Needham also could change the law through a home rule petition, which is the process by which the town authorized beer and wine to be served at restaurants with more than 100 seats. The issue would be voted on at a Town Meeting and would then go to the state legislature for review. Proponents could also request that the issue go to a ballot vote in town if approved by the state, Tobin said.
The home rule petition option would allow the town to tailor the language of the law to meet Needham’s specific needs, Tobin noted.
Based on a state formula, Needham would be allowed to have six package store licenses and 26 licenses for on-premises consumption, Tobin said.