Letter To The Editor: Liquor, Money, and Politics in Belmont

Photo: The September meeting between the Selectmen and Star Market and the Loading Dock.

To the editor:

Belmont was a “dry” town until about 2000. Over several years, we carefully authorized and licensed restaurants and retail stores. Elected officials spent hours developing rules to ensure that when we went from “dry” to “wet” we wouldn’t end up in the mud where liquor licenses are sold to the highest bidder.

But here we are.  On Oct. 6, the Board of Selectmen (by a vote of 2 to 1, with Chairman Mark Paolillo dissenting) authorized The Loading Dock to transfer its right as a retail all-alcohol licensee to Star Market for $400,000.   

This is not what Town Meeting intended when it voted to increase the number of all-alcohol retail licenses from one to two. The Selectmen’s decision on Oct. 6 is a threat to small retail stores in Belmont. Town Meeting needs to fix this.     

Let me explain.    

Until 2013, Town Meeting had authorized only one all-alcohol retail store. That license was held by The Spirted Gourmet in Cushing Square. At the annual Town Meeting in 2013, Town Meeting authorized a second all-liquor retail store. In 2014, the Selectmen gave that license to The Loading Dock. 

During the 2013 Town Meeting, Donald Mercier, Town Meeting Member from Precinct 8, suggested that the language of the article on all-alcohol retail licenses should be drafted more carefully.  He said, “I appreciate what this group of Selectmen are doing, but in 10 years from now, we may have different Selectmen with different ideas. So I think this license has to be tightened down, so you get what you want today, what you want to create today.” Mercier was right.  

What the Selectmen promised in 2013 was that they would approve a full liquor retail license to an establishment similar to the first recipient of that license – The Spirited Gourmet — a small specialty store. No Town Meeting Member recommended that the license should go to a supermarket chain with 2,200 stores nationwide. Instead, the vast majority of speakers insisted that the second license go only to a small, specialty store. A Town Meeting Member from Precinct 3 also asked for assurances that the license would not go to any vendor in Waverley Square near the Butler School.  The Selectmen said that they understood.  

I was a member of that Board, and we promised we would follow the intent of Town Meeting.    

But Mercier was right. We have different Selectmen now. On Oct. 6, the second of two all-alcohol retail licenses was transferred from The Loading Dock to Star Market for $400,000.    

Star Market was started in 1915 by the Mugar family in Watertown. According to its website, Star Market is now part of AB Acquisition LLC, which is owned by a consortium of private investors led by Cerebus Capital Management. Cerebus financed a merger to create the second-largest supermarket chain in the US. According to financial analysts, the intent was to create a huge chain that could compete with Kroger and WalMart.  

The Selectmen held two hearings on the transfer of this license. At the first meeting (on Sept. 19), the attorney for Star Market told the Board that it “must follow the letter of the 2014 home rule petition.”  The letter of the home rule petition only tells the Selectmen what they could do. It does not tell them what they should do. The Selectmen had the legal authority to determine public need and public good for Belmont.  

The Board’s determination should have been shaped by the values and expectations of Town Meeting Members as expressed during the Town Meeting of 2013. Former Selectmen Mahoney and Solomon attended the October hearing and explained to current Selectmen that the intent of the original rules on alcohol licenses in Belmont. The intent was to award these licenses to small, specialty stores, and to prohibit their transfer. According to Ms. Mahoney, this has been an ongoing covenant between Town Meeting, Belmont residents, and small businesses since 2000.  

As the son of a small retail store owner, I know what small businesses hope to get from government – consistency, predictability, and fair play … and maybe some parking.

The Selectmen’s decision on Oct. 6 was inconsistent with past precedent and a threat to small businesses. Elena Benoit of The Spirited Gourmet explained that she and Chris Benoit had worked hard and played by the rules for ten years. She was encouraged to open the Belmont store by than Selectman Angelo Firenze. But now, the Board had decided to change the rules. That, she argued, is not fair play. Jen Bonislawski, owner of the new Arts Specialties store on Trapelo Road testified that she “didn’t know how we’re going to survive.”

The Selectmen’s decision on Oct. 6 sends a message to small retail stores in Belmont.  Consistency and predictability are not important. The license originally awarded to a small specialty store for $4,000 can be transferred to a large supermarket for $400,000.      

Trust in elected officials is fragile. Once lost, it is not easily restored. To start the process of restoring Town Meeting’s long-standing commitment to small, local businesses, we must “tighten down” the authority to grant liquor licenses. We should not allow any Board to award licenses “at its discretion.” Town Meetings can specify who gets a license and ensure that licenses cannot be sold or transferred.   

Also, it seems prudent to create a new, appointed Alcohol Beverage Licensing Board in Belmont.  This Board should not be merely advisory.  It should have the exclusive authority to issue licenses.  An appointed Board would have sufficient institutional memory to have known that some of the “concessions” offered by Star Market on Oct. 6 merely brought it into compliance with Belmont’s existing regulations.            

The Board’s decision of Oct. 6, leaves us in a state of legal ambiguity.  We need to end this ambiguity in a manner that is consistent with Town Meeting’s intent.  

The attorney for Star Market informed us that the sale of liquor licenses is “routine” in Massachusetts. We know.  That is why Town Meetings and Selectmen spent a decade creating a unique environment in Belmont — where licenses would be issued consistent with Town Meeting’s intent, where licenses would not be transferred, and where promises to small retail businesses would not be broken. A future Town Meeting must re-establish this policy and ensure that it is enforced.  

Ralph Jones

Summit Road

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 3 and former selectman