Somerville's effort to get permission from the state to grant more liquor licenses has faced some challenges on Beacon Hill, according to Somerville State Rep. Denise Provost, who spoke briefly to Somerville Patch about the subject on June 1.
"It's been the subject of ongoing discussions in committee," Provost said about a bill that would increase the amount of liquor licenses Somerville is able to grant to restaurants.
A matter of economic development, says city
In Massachusetts, the state limits the number of liquor licenses each community is allowed to issue to restaurants and bars. As it now stands, Somerville is limited to 84 liquor licenses and 16 beer and wine licenses, and of those, 10 have been set aside for restaurants in the new Assembly Row development in Assembly Square.
This state-imposed limit makes it difficult to open or expand a restaurant in a city that sees dining and entertainment as an important sector of the local economy—a sector that represents a $120 million business to the city, according to Michael Meehan, a former spokesperson for Somerville, who spoke about the issue in October, 2011. (Case in point: Boston Magazine recently called the restaurant scene in Somerville "so hot.")
Under the current system, new restaurants must scramble and compete against each other for the small number of licenses that are available at any given moment. Available licenses often surface only when another restaurant goes out of business.
In October of 2011, the city approved a home rule petition that seeks permission from the state to grant more licenses. In doing so, the city said it's an issue of economic development.
Beacon Hill has concerns
Since then, the home rule petition (House Bill 3851), has been referred to the state's Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, and according to Provost, "There was a redraft, which does not quite allow for the number of licenses the city was seeking." (The text currently available on the Massachusetts General Court's online bill tracker does not yet reflect any changes to the bill's language.)
Provost said committee leaders have expressed concern about "practice in other communities and how much leeway other communities are granted."
Noting that some communities, such as Cambridge, do not have limits to the number of licenses they can grant, Provost said those decisions were made over two decades ago and the attitude about granting communities such autonomy has changed.
There's "a desire to keep an eye on liquor licenses and liquor license practices," Provost said.
She also said committee leaders have expressed concerns about "economic fairness."
Because their numbers are limited, liquor licenses have become expensive assets in many communities. A new restaurant in East Somerville recently bought an available license for $125,000, according to proceedings from an April Somerville Licensing Commission meeting. In Boston, those licenses have been known to cost as much as $450,000.
More on the home rule petition
Interesting article from the Boston Globe: "For the price of a Boston liquor license... oh, never mind"