An Expanded Liquor License Proposal Is Working Its Way Through Beacon Hill

Boston officials are pushing to lift the cap on the number of licenses the city can have to diminish the disparity between neighborhoods.

Photo By steve Annear

Photo By Steve Annear

It’s been six years since Karen Henry-Garrett, owner of Dot2Dot Café, opened her business on Dorchester Avenue. And in those six years, it’s been almost impossible for her to turn a considerable profit due to the lack of liquor licenses available to both restaurants and eateries looking to keep up with competitors in surrounding neighborhoods, Henry-Garrett said.

“At the end of the month, I breathe out because I can pay my bills and I can pay my employees. But I don’t pay myself a salary, I never have,” she said during a hearing at the State House in front of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee. She was testifying in support of a proposal that would allow Boston to lift the cap on the number of liquor licenses the city is allowed to distribute to business owners. “I can’t afford to offer dinners on a Friday night without a beer or wine license. It’s a tough neighborhood, but I think it’s a changing neighborhood. If I can’t make money doing this, I would have to make some drastic cuts and figure out how to continue my business.”

The bill, a home-rule petition crafted by City Councilor Ayanna Pressley over the past two years, would give the Boston Licensing Board authority over how many liquor licenses could be awarded, ultimately taking the control out of the state’s hands. It would also expand the number of seats on the city’s board from three to five members. The bill is focused on bringing more licenses to neighborhoods like Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Hyde Park, which have been left in the dust without any viable options to help boost the appeal of local businesses and attract additional customers.

In Boston, licenses are capped at 650 full liquor licenses and 320 wine and malt beverage licenses, and securing one can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pressley’s proposal would allow for additional beer and wine licenses to be available, and keep them in certain districts so that they couldn’t be sold across town.

“The current law is confusing and cost prohibitive,” Pressley said, citing that it was written more than 100 years ago. “This is a matter of equity and enterprise opportunity and fairness, and making sure that every neighborhood in our city has the opportunity to thrive.”

Pressley’s proposal has received a lot of support from elected officials and community groups, including restaurant owners and other business representatives. City Council members voted out the bill favorably in December with the blessing of then-mayor Tom Menino. On Tuesday, it landed on the desk of the committee, which heard testimony from Pressley, restaurateurs like Henry-Garrett, and residents.

“This is not about converting main streets into, you know, into New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. This is about recognizing that in order for our community to be healthy, it has to have a thriving main streets, and restaurants play a critical role in that,” Pressley said after delivering her testimony to the committee. “[Restaurants] are community anchors, they incentivize foot traffic, they make blighted neighborhoods that have been marginalized and disenfranchised—they can convert them and they can transform them by making them destination locations.”

Pressley cited the success of the Ashmont Grill restaurant, which she said turned the neighborhood into a destination location where people want to spend time.

“The current law is…crippling small businesses and economic development,” she said.

While Pressley has had considerable support for her plan, committee members still questioned whether businesses granted new beer and wine licenses would then want to have full liquor licenses—to serve hard alcohol—in order to increase their business even further.

State Representative Jay Livingstone, who represents the Back Bay area, where there are more than 140 liquor licenses compared with three in Mattapan, argued that the language wasn’t clear enough in the proposal. “There’s no limit on the number of licenses,” he said. “Depending on how the bill—if it became law—was applied, I am concerned there’s not enough guidance provided.”

Representative Russell Holmes, who backed Pressley’s petition, said those concerns were apparent, but they don’t change the fact that there is a disparity between the number of licenses in places like the North End, Back Bay, and Downtown Boston, compared with those in other parts of the city. “The point is, we shouldn’t have to leave our neighborhoods to really get fine dining,” he said.

City Councilor Tito Jackson, who recently filed his own home-rule petition in order to increase the number of licenses available in the up-and-coming Dudley Square area where the city is currently pumping millions of dollars worth of redevelopment, doesn’t want the neighborhood to fall short when constructions complete.

“Sadly, in my district, I go through Dudley and there is literally no place to sit down and eat and have an adult beverage. And as you know, there are things I like to do, and eating is one of them,” he said. “Dudley closes at about 5:30 in the evening, so even though there is 35,000 people going through their each day, it’s a pass through rather than a destination.”

He said the only way to fix that is to allow more licenses to new restaurants. “We know that restaurants create a lot of jobs,” he said. “It would also return revenue to the city, and the state.”

It would even help nearby eateries like Dot2Dot Café continue to operate years down the line. “This is not about wanting to party. This is not about fun. It’s really about access to opportunity, and access to business development, and access to elevation in our community,” said Jackson.