More towns catching liquor-license buzz Moorestown considers ending its dry spell

Posted: June 24, 2007

Moorestown is many things:

A quaintly staid town with Quaker roots, a picturesque Main Street, fine homes, and a history of notable residents. Tasteful, even tony. A respectable small town.

Soon, Moorestown may become something else as well:

A place where you can order a good, stiff drink.

In the last few weeks, Moorestown officials - tempted by sky-high liquor-license prices in neighboring towns - have been circulating petitions that would allow a referendum in November on whether to shed the town's nearly century-old dry status and permit the issuance of liquor licenses.

If enough residents sign and Moorestown takes the plunge, it will become the latest in a growing number of South Jersey towns that are seizing on liquor licenses as way to raise money, foster economic development, or lure an amenity for their citizenry.

Much is at stake. About a year ago, Cherry Hill broke the New Jersey - and, some say, national - record when a liquor license there resold for $1.5 million. Two more have gone for the same amount since. Encouraged by those figures and its own relatively high-end demographics, Moorestown might set an opening bid of $1 million, said Jacob Der Hagopian, chairman of the Moorestown Economic Development Advisory Committee.

In New Jersey, the number of liquor licenses a municipality can issue is determined by population. There are two kinds of licenses - distribution licenses, used by stores that sell alcoholic beverages, and consumption licenses, used by restaurants and bars.

For now, Moorestown is only interested in consumption licenses. It would qualify for as many as six.

And Moorestown being Moorestown, no dives need apply.

"We'd like to see a Stephen Starr operation come in. It's possible," Der Hagopian said. "It's possible to get a Ruth's Chris."

Der Hagopian said a high-end restaurant would enhance the town's commercial assets, particularly along the Route 38 corridor near the Moorestown Mall, and provide revenue that would ease the tax burden on other businesses and residents.

In Pennsylvania, the number of available liquor licenses is determined by municipal population and county quotas, according to Nick Hays, a spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board. Liquor stores are state-run, but there are dozens of other kinds of liquor licenses. The state does not put licenses out to bid.

Pennsylvania license resale prices are market-driven. While prices have not reached Cherry Hill levels, they have risen substantially in some places, according to Francis X. O'Brien, a lawyer who handles license sales and is a former general counsel to the state Liquor Control Board.

"Pennsylvania has given out so few quota licenses in the last 15 years, no one's gotten one except in places of high population growth," he said.

A liquor license in Philadelphia can sell for around $65,000 - twice what it would have cost 10 years ago. In Montgomery and Chester Counties, licenses have sold for as much as $350,000.

The limited number of licenses and their cost have contributed to the growth of BYOB eateries in some parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

If Moorestown does go for licenses, chances are they won't be snapped up by the town's existing restaurants, which include fancy BYOB places.

"None of us small businesses could afford these licenses for $1 million, $1.5 million," said Seth Merlin, owner of the Green Apple Bistro. "What will happen if they issue these licenses is all the chains will grab them."

As much as he would like to have a liquor license, Merlin said he was not worried about the competition because his customers do not frequent chains.

"Franchises thrive on people who have no idea about food," he scoffed. "They just spend their money."

Ben Blumberg, owner of Barnacle Ben's Seafood Restaurant, said he was not concerned, either.

"When you've been around 30 years, you have a loyal following," he said.

Still, liquor licenses in dry Moorestown may not be a shoo-in.

Moorestown, named for a Quaker tavern owner, Thomas Moore, voted against going wet in 1935 and again in 1953, according to Moorestown's Third Century: The Quaker Legacy, by William H. Kingston III.

Township Councilmen Jonathan Eron and Dan Roccato voted against even going ahead with the petitions.

Both said they were concerned about the impact on restaurants already in town and unforeseen costs. Both also had concerns about town character.

"Moorestown will change, and do we want that kind of change?" Roccato asked.

There are 39 dry towns in New Jersey, including Delanco and Harrison, whose residents voted against going wet in 2002.

Harrison Mayor Michael Koestler, in his pre-mayor days, voted against licenses. He said the town did not need the money, so he did not understand the interest in change.

"Some people wanted an Applebee's in town. That's all I can figure," Koestler said.

But other municipalities see allowing or expanding the sale of demon rum as a sweet deal.

Lumberton recently opened bidding at $750,000 for its fourth consumption license. The hope is to attract a family-restaurant chain and help redevelop the town's Route 38 commercial corridor, Mayor Patrick Delany said.

Last month, the Woolwich Township Committee authorized public bidding for a liquor-store license starting at $450,000. Last year, a consumption license fetched $450,000.

"We used that to offset a major tax increase," Township Administrator Jack Lipsett said.

Just a few weeks ago, the Washington Township Council approved opening bids of $600,000 for a distribution license and $550,000 for a consumption license. The council also narrowly approved allowing alcoholic beverages to be sold in supermarkets if they have a license. So a market may just become the owner of that new distribution license - if local opponents fail in their efforts to get alcohol sold in markets disallowed again by referendum.

The plan for the money generated by licenses?

"Tax relief," Mayor Paul Moriarty said.

In Merchantville, a liquor license was granted for what is now Collins House, a restaurant in a historic building.

Audubon may not have the priciest liquor licenses around, but the town has surely got lots of mileage out of them.

Since 2003, the town has sold two consumption licenses for $100,000 and one distribution license for $450,000. One license brought Tommy G's restaurant and pub to downtown. The other lured Applebee's as one of the first anchors for the now-buzzing Audubon Commons/Audubon Crossings shopping center. A third consumption license will soon be sold.

In addition to enabling economic redevelopment, the cash from the license let Audubon pay for field turf and lighting at Green Wave Park, according to Mayor Anthony Pugliese.

Pugliese said he did not think the liquor licenses had changed Audubon's character. Restrictions were placed on the licenses about what kind of places were permitted, and they were limited to redevelopment zones. He said he did not understand what the folks in Moorestown were worried about.

"Does Applebee's scare Moorestown?" he asked.

Fear, though, is not the operative emotion.

If Stephen Starr doesn't bite, Der Hagopian mused, "maybe a Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang's."

We are, after all, talking Moorestown.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

New Jersey's Dry Towns

Atlantic County

Port Republic City

Bergen County

Saddle River Borough

Burlington County

Delanco Township

Moorestown

Pemberton Borough

Riverton Borough

Camden County

Audubon Park Borough

Collingswood Borough

Haddonfield Borough

Haddon Heights Borough

Stratford Borough

Cape May County

Cape May Point Borough

Ocean City

West Cape May Borough

Wildwood Crest Borough

Cumberland County

Downe Township

Hopewell Township

Lawrence Township

Maurice River Township

Shiloh Borough

Stow Creek Township

Upper Deerfield Township

Gloucester County

Elk Township

Harrison Township

Pitman Borough

South Harrison Township

Wenonah Borough

Mercer County

Pennington Borough

Monmouth County

Interlaken Borough

Ocean County

Island Heights Township

Mantoloking Township

Passaic County

Prospect Park Borough

Salem County

Elmer Borough

Lower Alloways Creek Township

Mannington Township

Oldmans Township

Upper Pittsgrove Township

Quinton Township

Somerset County

Far Hills Borough

SOURCE: State of New Jersey

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