Salem Mayor Pushes Liquor Plan

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll’s plan to create three new liquor licenses and allow existing seasonal license holders to sell alcohol year-round failed last week to win the support of the City Council subcommittee charged with reviewing it, reports the Salem News.

Driscoll said the proposed changes would encourage new investment in a city already over its state-imposed license limit and provide relief to Salem businesses now prevented from selling alcohol for three months a year. But Councilor-at-large Joan Lovely, chairwoman of the Committee on Ordinances, Licenses and Legal Affairs, couldn’t support the three new licenses because they would create a glut in what she said is already a “saturated” market.

Lovely and Councilor Michael Sosnowski voted against the plan. Councilors Joe O’Keefe and Arthur Sargent voted for it. O’Keefe said it would help energize the city’s already vibrant downtown.

After a vote in favor of Driscoll’s proposal resulted in a tie, the committee opted to put the matter before the full council next week without a recommendation. The mayor needs six votes to send what is a home-rule petition to the state Legislature for its approval.

The petition asks state lawmakers to let Salem convert seven seasonal licenses — three all-alcohol licenses and four beer and wine licenses — into annual licenses and establish up to three new all-alcohol annual licenses. Both the converted and new licenses would be subject to fees the city would collect and put into an economic development fund that would support promotions and activities to bring people downtown.

If one of the converted or new licenses were to be no longer in use, for whatever reason, it would be returned to Salem’s Licensing Board, which could then grant it to another business.

The city would solicit bids for the three new licenses.

“We want to be open for business, we want to bring people here,” Driscoll said. “We can’t close our doors and say, ‘No more.'”

Her plan was born out of discussions city officials and business leaders have been having for more than a year about home-rule petition licensing. Petitioning the state is the only mechanism the city has to add licenses and, after granting nine, the council and others wanted to establish specific guidelines.

Home-rule licenses are free for the recipients, a fact that frustrates restaurant owners who paid market value for their licenses. The council has yet to endorse a criteria for the new licenses, and, as it deliberates, the city is adhering to an unofficial moratorium on such permits.

Driscoll views her plan as a compromise to move the city forward in the short term. Once the three new licenses are in use, she favors halting the issuance of any additional licenses for three years “in order to assess the impact and allow restaurants to have a level playing field during this time period.”

Sosnowski said he wants the fees the city puts on future licenses to mirror market value, which is about $60,000. “Let’s take the free ride away,” he said.

The mayor was open to the suggestion, though it’s the Licensing Board that is responsible for drafting the fees.

If an existing beer and wine license holder were to acquire one of the new all-alcohol licenses, Sargent offered a successful amendment to require it to transfer the old license to a business based downtown. The adjustment ensures licenses will go toward improving business activity downtown, while limiting the potential impact on neighborhoods outside it, he said.

Salem Beer Works, which has a beer and wine license, has expressed interest in one of the three new licenses, according to Councilor Jean Pelletier. A member of the committee, he voted present last night.

Councilor Steve Pinto said that, with 87 licenses, the city had reached its limit.

“We’re at a tipping point and enough is enough,” said Pinto, who is not a committee member but participated in last night’s meeting.

Lovely said she supports the license conversions and will move to separate them from the establishment of the new licenses when the council convenes Thursday.

“I understand where (that’s) coming from, but it really only solves one-half of the problem,” Driscoll said after the meeting adjourned. “Without a tool, any new restaurant that wants to come in, if there are no licenses available, won’t be able to.”

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