Karen Heller: Fights over alcohol can get personal in a dry town like Ocean City

The deadline nears for a drive to put a BYOB liquor-license question on the November ballot in officially dry Ocean City.
The deadline nears for a drive to put a BYOB liquor-license question on the November ballot in officially dry Ocean City. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 31, 2011

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - This is a long island, eight miles of superb beaches, but a very small place. City is a whopper of a misnomer for this town of almost 12,000 year-round residents. Everyone knows everyone.

Jay Gillian, the shorts-clad mayor, local hospital chairman, and third-generation owner of Gillian's Wonderland Pier, is a leading opponent of the effort to lubricate this dry island with BYOB liquor licenses. This week is the petition deadline to put the measure on the November ballot.

The initiative is "going to turn neighbor against neighbor," says the mayor, who has never lived anywhere but here. "It's going to be horrible. We're a passionate community. We want to keep a family, wholesome atmosphere."

Bill McGinnity, owner of Cousin's restaurant, is a leading supporter of BYOBs. "We're not talking about bars and liquor stores. We're against selling liquor," he says. "But we're not giving our tourists and local residents a choice to dine in Ocean City." And he says the lack of alcohol is killing his business. Without his takeout and catering income, "I would be done."

It's a tempest in a wine bottle.

The mayor and chef are in utter disagreement, yet Gillian calls McGinnity "Billy." The two went to high school together. McGinnity and other restaurateurs argue that the lack of alcohol is hurting business and killing downtown. He says: "People are prone to go off-island for dinner."

The debate - actually, it's become a battle - goes to the core of how Ocean City, founded in 1879 as a religious retreat, perceives itself. Is it an all-American, Norman Rockwell vision of a beach community true to its motto as America's Greatest Family Resort? Or should it adapt to the times, like Ocean Grove, Collingswood, and Haddonfield - other dry towns that permit BYOBs - and cater to patrons who like a glass of cab with their veal parm?

"Why do people come here? Because what we have is unique. Ocean City is a brand. You don't damage that brand," says John Loeper, whose family began visiting in 1904.

BYOB foes "don't like change. Life is change," says Aimee Repici, owner of the bright-pink Chatterbox restaurant.

"I think having booze out on the boardwalk is a bad idea," says Richard Stanislaw, president of Ocean City Tabernacle, which attracts 35,000 visitors each season. "I don't want any form of a BYOB." The sprawling Tabernacle is leading the crusade on its website and helped distribute 2,000 anti-BYOB signs that plastered the town - that is, until they were challenged by the pro-BYOB contingent for violating election law, and down they went. "I think it's a free-speech issue," Stanislaw mutters.

Meanwhile, one of the five original pro-BYOB petitioners felt so harassed at church and school events that he resigned from the effort.

"Are we going to turn into the Jersey Shore? I mean, come on," Gillian says.

To which McGinnity responds: "Love thy neighbor - unless he disagrees with your opinion."

Sometimes, I started hearing The Music Man's Professor Harold Hill singing "You got trouble, right here in Ocean City. With a capital T, and that rhymes with B, and that stands for Booze."

The truth is, there's plenty of alcohol on the island - the bridges are identified by their closest liquor store, for Pete's sake - and not just in people's homes. "Just go to the beach and count the bottles in the recycling cans," McGinnity says.

I did. There are plenty.

"This is the wettest dry town in America," Repici says.

Ocean City already changed when its arcane and intricate blue laws were altered in 1985, a fight led by Roy Gillian - again, it's a small town - who later became mayor. His son still thinks that was a bad idea: "It did change the feeling of Ocean City. We lost something by making Sunday another day of work."

The bottle conversations tend to start politely, each side granting the other its due, but they gradually grow personal and, at times, petty and a tad paranoid. That tends to happen when people love a town so much, especially a summer place drenched in memory. I heard tales of ulterior motives, conspiracies, perceived pressures - even a suspect damaged tire.

I could name names but, again, this is a small place, and everyone is so nice.

After a few hours, I came away thinking both sides might be wrong.

Allowing glasses of wine in restaurants won't ruin Ocean City. Conversely, a six-pack isn't a stimulus package. BYOBs won't save a sleepy downtown, especially in the heat of a recession. People don't come to Ocean City, or most other beach towns, to eat out every night.

Life is change, as Repici notes, but Ocean City changes slowly. The pro-BYOB folks say they have the 747 signatures needed for the ballot push.

The pro side says more restaurants will come. The anti side argues people will leave. On this, everyone agrees: The fight is far from over.

All this talk was enough to make you crave a drink. And so at sunset I drank. Right there on the beach, with everyone else.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

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