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Across Pennsylvania, communities uncork liquor laws

By EMILY OPILO and PETER HALL, The (Allentown) Morning CallJune 1, 2019

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — In some Pennsylvania communities, alcohol is still the devil’s drink and bars are an unnecessary evil. But with Election Day came an opportunity to turn on the taps in those towns — and many of them seized it.

Voters in 20 municipalities considered referendums during the primary election to flip their towns from dry to wet — opening the possibility of alcohol sales. Of that group, 19 were successful, according to media reports collected by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Dry laws, a relic of the Prohibition era, are almost foreign to the Lehigh Valley. There are no municipalities that forbid the sale of alcohol in Lehigh or Northampton counties. The same goes for Monroe and Carbon counties to the north, Schuylkill and Berks counties to the west and all but one municipality in Bucks County to the south.

But for a large swath of the midstate and even a few Philadelphia suburbs, dry municipalities remain plentiful. As of January, there were still 683 Pennsylvania municipalities that were at least partially dry — about a quarter of the 2,571 municipalities in the state.

Central Pennsylvania, known for being politically conservative and home to some of the state’s strictest religious groups including the Amish, has clung to dry laws.

“When you look at the actual land, the geography of what’s dry, you can almost walk from Maryland to New York,” said Shawn Kelly, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. “You go right up the middle.”

Many of those dry laws date to the 1930s when Prohibition was repealed. At the time, Pennsylvania gave each municipality a choice: Keep a ban on alcohol in place (stay dry) or to allow the sale (go wet).

Lots of variations have emerged. Some municipalities allow retail beer sales, like a six-pack at a pizza shop, while barring retail liquor sales which would allow a patron to drink a glass of wine at the same spot. A municipality can also be considered dry while still making an exception for a particular business, such as a golf course.

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“When you look at the actual land, the geography of what’s dry, you can almost walk from Maryland to New York.”

SHAWN KELLY, SPOKESMAN FOR THE PENNSYLVANIA LIQUOR CONTROL BOARD

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The municipalities that considered referendums in the primary election were part of a steady, but not unprecedented, stream of enclaves that have opted to make their boroughs, townships and cities wet, Kelly said. The state previously restricted liquor referendums to primaries in odd numbered years, so the dry-to-wet efforts came in spurts. But that law was lifted in 2016, he said.

Local leaders have found numerous benefits to allowing the sale of suds. It can encourage different kinds of businesses to move into a municipality, or expand the reach of existing ones such as grocery stores or gas stations that would like to add beer to their offerings.

Pennsylvania loosened liquor laws to allow such retailers to sell beer in 2016, and across the state, those merchants have spearheaded efforts to get wet referendums on the ballot.

That’s what happened in two Delaware County municipalities that were successful in going wet during the primary election. Grocery store chain Giant Food Stores coordinated petition drives to get the issue on the ballot in Aldan, a 4,300-resident borough just west of Philadelphia, and Marple Township, which is nearly six times bigger and farther west.

Those referendums and another in neighboring Lansdowne passed overwhelmingly, slashing the number of remaining dry municipalities in the county from 12 to nine. In the southeastern region, only Chester County has a substantial number of dry municipalities left, with 20. Two — in Franklin and and West Marlboro townships — were overturned on election day.

George Costas, owner of The Country Squire diner on busy West Chester Pike in Marple Township, sees the referendum as a dynamic opportunity for the bedroom community whose business district is lined with strip malls.

He said his grandfather, who opened the diner in the early 1950s, always expected the law to change. The family went as far as building a small bar in a backroom, though they’ve only been able to use it for private events.

“If we have the opportunity to do more business, it pays us to enhance the operation,” said Costas, who might turn the place into a sports bar if he can secure a liquor license.

Municipalities that passed such referendums still must submit certified election results to the LCB before any licenses can be issued.

Christopher Brand, a spokesman for Giant, said the chain is excited by the results in Delaware County.

“We now have the opportunity to increase customer convenience and ensure responsible sales of beer and wine in these communities,” he said.

In Lansdowne — a century-old borough a mile from the Philadelphia border — the vote passed by a 4-to-1 margin, driven not by chain businesses but by an economic development corporation. The thinking was that restaurants selling beer and wine could bring residents and visitors back to the languid business district.

Lansdowne boasts tree-lined streets of grand Victorian homes interspersed with more modest twins, and its downtown, along Lansdowne and Baltimore avenues, once featured dress shops, a haberdasher, grocery stores and a bakery.

The Avenue Delicatessen, an acclaimed Jewish-Italian deli in Lansdowne, Delaware County, closed last year after five years in business. In the election, voters approved a referendum to allow restaurants in the borough to sell alcoholic beverages, which officials hope will help the businesses thrive.

Today, the historic Lansdowne Theater, whose restored marquee made a cameo in the 2012 film “Silver Linings Playbook,” hopes to draw 1,500 people a night to live music performances when its renovation is complete. But the restaurants around it have struggled to stay afloat. Two critically acclaimed eateries — both BYOB — have opened and closed there in the last decade.

The Lansdowne Economic Development Corp., which manages a state Main Street program for the borough, spearheaded the referendum. Director Debbie Brodeur said liquor sales fit both the restaurant industry’s business model and Landsdowne’s changing demographics. The number of baby boomers and millennials in Lansdowne is increasing.

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“A liquor license is not something that is easily obtained by a fly-by-night business.”

DEBBIE BRODEUR, DIRECTOR OF LANSDOWNE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORP.

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“We know that baby boomers and millennials like coffee and beer, so it’s to our benefit to meet that,” Brodeur said.

The group worked to dispel concerns that the move would create a downtown full of bars. With a population of about 10,000 people, Lansdowne could get three licenses, as the LCB allows a license for every 3,000 people. But the only way to get a license is to buy it from a business that currently has one. And they don’t come cheaply — costing about $200,000 to $250,000, Brodeur said.

‘Old school’ prevails

Fawn Grove, a York County borough of 450 people, holds the distinction of being the only municipality in the state that rejected an attempt to go wet during the primary election, and the 65 residents who participated in the primary made their vote memorable. A beer sales referendum failed by a one-vote margin (32-31), while a separate liquor referendum tied with a vote of 31-31. A tie is considered a failure under state liquor code, Kelly said.

Fawn Grove springs from rolling farmland in the southernmost part of the county where Pennsylvania meets Maryland. A smattering of white-sided homes and American flag-clad telephone poles line Main and Market streets, which meet at an intersection marked with street signs adorned with tiny white fawns.

Like so many York County hamlets, the hub of Fawn Grove commerce consists of a Rutter’s convenience store and gas station. The chain which began as small dairy farm stores has expanded exponentially in recent years to compete with gas giants like Sheetz, adding made-to-order food and beer sales.

Rutter’s, not local leaders, spearheaded a petition to get the referendums on the Fawn Grove ballot. Officials with Rutter’s did not respond to a request for an interview.

Shon Compher, president of Fawn Grove Borough Council, favored going wet. Other municipalities in the area have fought Rutter’s and lost, and he saw legal bills in the borough’s future if they resisted, he said. But many of the town’s residents are very “old school,” said Compher, 44, and some feared that the 24-hour Rutter’s would attract partiers seeking beer overnight.

“After 10 you have to be careful when you go outside, because everyone is a raving lunatic,” Compher said, sarcastically. “It can happen, sure, but it can happen anywhere. You see other towns with multiple bars and there’s not drunk hooligans running the street, soaping people’s windows and throwing eggs.”

Compher, a landscaper, said approving beer sales would have made little difference for someone looking to bring home a six-pack. Beer can be purchased at Rutter’s in neighboring Stewartstown or a six-minute drive across the Maryland border.

“I wanted that open door so we could have a Chili’s one day, or what-the-heck-ever.”

Compher said he and others favored the referendums in hopes of keeping their tiny town alive. In the last several years, the borough has lost its bank and its barber. No businesses have replaced them.

Now, by state law, the borough cannot take up the issue again for another four years.

“I wanted that open door so we could have a Chili’s one day, or what-the-heck-ever,” he said. “You can transfer a license if someone wanted to have a nice bar and restaurant.”

“It’s jobs and tax base and opportunities and convenience for residents,” Compher continued. “At some point in time you have to get with the times. I don’t want my town to die out because of lack of infrastructure and business.”

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Where in PA?

About 20 municipalities considered liquor referendums during the primary election that would have flipped their towns from dry to wet. Below is a list from the LCB. A complete list of dry municipalities is on the LCB’s website.

Armstrong County: South Buffalo and West Franklin townships, Worthington borough

Beaver County: Vanport Township

Blair County: Roaring Spring and Williamsburg boroughs, North Woodbury Township

Butler County: Middlesex Township

Chester County: Franklin and West Marlboro townships

Crawford County: Conneaut Lake borough

Delaware County: Aldan and Lansdowne boroughs, Marple Township

Lawrence County: New Wilmington borough

Lebanon County: Cleona borough

Union County: Union Township

York County: Fawn Grove borough

Venango County: Barkleyville and Utica boroughs

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2HI7Uv7

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

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