After a prompt from the town’s economic advisors, selectmen opened discussion Tuesday night about whether wine and beer should be sold off the shelf in Needham for the first time since before Prohibition.
Damon Borelli, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, told selectmen the council had received several inquiries from entrepreneurs interested in setting up beer and wine shops in town, but Needham currently does not allow these types of businesses.
Though the town does allow liquor to be served in restaurants with more than 100 seats, and one-day special liquor licenses are available for events, Needham is still considered by many to be a “dry” town. There are no licenses available for package stores serving wine, beer or liquor, and the only bar in town that is not part of a restaurant is at the Sheraton—licensed under the 1960 hotels exception, according to Executive Director Gloria Greis.
“Needham had a strong temperance tradition dating back to the 1850s, when the Rev. Stephen Palmer declared the use of liquor in this town to be too prevalent and started the first temperance society,” Greis explained in an e-mail outlining Needham’s history as a dry town.
After the federal government repealed Prohibition in December 1933, Needham voters debated the issue at the March 1934 annual Town Meeting, ultimately voting down two options: Whether to permit the sale of all alcoholic beverages and whether to permit the sale of wine and malt beverages, Greis said. Local residents debated the issue again throughout the 1930s and ’40s, reaffirming the decision each time with even more “no” votes.
A vote taken in 1960 did allow liquor to be served in local hotels, but residents again confirmed that they did not want to allow liquor licenses or package stores, Greis said.
On Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen revisited the issue, starting a discussion that officials said was just at its beginning.
After hearing some interest in changing the way Needham does business, the Council of Economic Advisors had established a subcommittee to study the issue, Borelli told selectmen.
“In analyzing how to proceed, the subcommittee thought a survey would probably be the best way to determine what the populous wants,” Borelli said.
But first, the group felt they should bring the idea before the Board of Selectmen.
Selectman Jim Healy said he was interested in learning more about anything that could give the local economy a boost.
“Obviously, the town is very anxious to learn about and pursue all items of potential economic activity that would help the economy and help our commercial businesses, especially in the downtown where we have had some additional vacancies recently,” Healy said.
However, he and other selectmen said they wanted to hear more from the council and from Director of Economic Development Devra Bailin about exactly how allowing beer and wine shops in town might spur economic activity in Needham.
Healy also felt officials should seek input from local citizens.
“I think this is something that, if the citizenry wants us to, we should pursue it,” he said.
Bailin said the council had proposed looking at just allowing beer and wine shops—not full package stores selling liquor because they felt it would have a smaller impact. The town could choose to allow all alcohol sales in the future.
Bailin said that the council thought beer and wine shops could help spur growth by bringing in related businesses, such as shops selling cheese and other specialty foods.
Selectman Dan Matthews said he felt the town had been moving away from being a “dry” community for some time. He also questioned the Council of Economic Advisors’ suggestion that—if citizens wanted to allow wine and beer sales—they pursue the change through a home-rule petition. Matthews said he thought the change could be done with a referendum (local ballot question).
Selectman John Bulian said he was not interested in holding a special election and incurring extra expenses for the town but felt that bringing the issue before voters at an April election would be a better option. Though some might argue that town elections have resulted in low turnout in recent years, Bulian said elections still provided one of the fairest ways to allow the public to weigh in on the topic.
Selectman Jerry Wasserman said he did not feel officials should base their decision on a “non-scientific” survey, such as one distributed online and which allowed people to vote as often as they wanted.
“Probably the ballot question would be the way that I’d want to go,” Wasserman said.
Handel said he felt the first step would be for the town’s economic advisors to determine the economic value of such a change.
Ultimately, the selectmen passed the issue to Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and her staff to review, consider the legal options and report back.