On Localism and Liquor Licenses

It’s not just the weather: The topic of liquor licenses has been hot in Waltham of late. Our community has been processing two separate but related issues.

The first issue remains before the Licenses and Franchises committee of the Waltham City Council, currently on summer recess. The matter they’re wrestling with has at least three parts (1) whether there should be more liquor licenses in Waltham, (2) if so, how many, and (3) and how should they be distributed.

Think_Local_AdobeStock_86290249We have no hard statistics to share but, anecdotally, we know that a number of our members are firmly in favor of more licenses while a number of our members are firmly opposed. As an organization, Waltham Local First hasn’t taken a detailed, official position on this complex matter, but the prevailing, general opinion on our Steering Committee is that more licenses are certainly needed, based on the fact that there are far fewer licenses for sale than there are willing buyers, and that the prices being charged for the limited licenses available are higher than many independent, locally owned businesses are able to pay.

The second liquor license related issue in Waltham has centered on the disposition of the recently discovered, unissued liquor license. The Waltham License Commission recently awarded that license to a national steakhouse chain when at least two independent, locally owned restaurants formally expressed interest.

On this matter our Steering Committee was unanimously dismayed that independent, locally owned businesses in our community were passed over in favor of a large national corporation.

Bob Perry, Chairperson and co-founder of Waltham Local First, expressed his views on the matter in the following Letter to the Editor that appeared in the July 14, 2016 edition of the Waltham News Tribune:

“The recent awarding of an exceedingly rare prize — a free liquor license — to a new Ruth’s Chris Steak House opening in November on the corner of Totten Pond Road and 3rd Avenue was based on maximizing the number of jobs that would be created and the amount of tax revenue that would be generated by whichever applicant received this extraordinary windfall.

“Certainly, Ruth’s Chris will create more jobs and collect more meals tax than the much smaller Gustazo or Brelundi, the other two applicants for that free license. However, I contend that an analysis looking at jobs and meals tax alone is incomplete. When considering how to best serve the citizens of Waltham, I would strongly prefer that consideration be given to cash flows beyond meals tax (it’s not commonly known that only 1 percent of the 7.25 percent collected actually stays in Waltham), and some of the subtler, “hidden” community benefits of local, independents over chains.

“For example:

“Economic: Numerous studies have shown that local, independent businesses re-circulate (re-spend) in their local communities over 50 percent of their revenue compared with just 15 percent by national chains. They spend more on local labor, more on local services, including accounting, legal, architecture, graphic design, and printing, and more on procurement of goods for resale than do national chains. Remember: those dollars re-spent locally create and sustain jobs and generate sales taxes too.

“Philanthropic: While some national chains do give to local charities, the fact is that the backbone of business charitable giving in local communities is the local businesses. In addition to the dollars they give, their owners and employees are also more likely to serve on local boards and volunteer for local causes. Chains tend to direct their charity to national causes.

“Cultural: Waltham’s distinct commercial character, heart, and soul comes not from Uno’s Pizzeria or Papa Gino’s; it comes from Charcoal Guido’s and Il Capriccio. Waltham is Waltham because of Heidi’s and Leo’s Place, not because of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. Adding Ruth’s Chris makes us a little more ordinary; Gustazo and Brelundi make us a little more special.

“I know their responsibilities are great and that their decisions are hard, but it is my hope that when in the future any of our hard-working and well-meaning government leaders have a choice between helping a local, independent business versus a national chain, that they will consider all the implications of that choice. Think local first.”

Business, politics, indeed life itself is a river. It keeps flowing. Yesterday’s opportunities and decisions are past. New ones are before us today. Opportunities that are fresher still are just upstream and will be before us tomorrow.

Waltham’s City Government—our City Government—from our Mayor to our City Council, to our License Commission, and our Building Department, our Planning Department, and so on—will face many more decisions in the future that resemble this recent licensing dilemma in nature. We at Waltham Local First strongly urge our leadership to choose in favor of our independent, locally owned businesses, the heart, soul, and backbone of our commercial community, whenever those opportunities arise. It’s in the best interest of Waltham, the City we all call home.