If Tisbury restaurants had begun laying down wines when the question of alcohol sales in the town first came up, they would have a nicely aged cellar by now.
It was September 2005 when the Tisbury Business Association first brought the idea of allowing restaurant sales of beer and wine before town selectmen. Now, close to three years later, after an exhaustive round of meetings, hearings and business and taxpayer surveys, it will finally be voted on this Tuesday.
Along the way, the arguments went round and round like a drunk in a revolving door. Either restaurant sales of beer and wine would encourage more people to spend their money in Tisbury instead of Oak Bluffs or Edgartown, or would drive families away. Either they would lead to social ills like public drunkenness, or lead to greater sobriety, because people would drink responsibly with their meals.
But when, after eight months of inquiry, research, polls and meetings the Tisbury beer and wine review committee reported back in October 2006, it found that sales would have little or no effect on taxpayers, the town or the general business community.
Nonetheless, after having reached that conclusion, the committee recommended selectmen make a home rule petition to the state.
This was duly done, but in the effort to allay opponent’s concerns, the proposal became complicated.
Selectmen can licence sales, annually or seasonally, to restaurants with seating of at lest 30 people. But those restaurants have to meet a host of conditions, including submitting menus and floor plans. They cannot make more than 35 per cent of their gross takings from alcohol, and there is a long list of stipulations about what constitutes a sufficiently adequate meal that it can be accompanied by alcohol (chips, desserts, nuts, single servings of soup or side salads, to mention a few, are not enough).
No patron can bring their own bottle to a licensed restaurant, and anyone wishing to leave with an unfinished bottle must have it sealed in a tamper-proof plastic bag with a receipt for their meal attached.
And it is the unwieldiness of regulation which Nat Benjamin, chief spokesman for the Committee to Preserve Our Town, which opposes the proposal, now targets.
“I’m not afraid of what would happen,” he said yesterday.
“I don’t think Vineyard Haven will turn into Oak Bluffs as a result of this. I just don’t see any positive impact in this.
“First of all, I think the business district is fairly healthy, as proven by certain stores that do well there.
“I’ve talked to people who have businesses both in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown, and they have told me unequivocally that Vineyard Haven is a much better business environment.
“A couple have even moved their businesses for that very reason. If these people are moving from a wet town to a dry town, for a better business climate, why make Vineyard Haven a wet town?”
And he fails to see how the complex restrictions on alcohol sales could be enforced.
“You have to have a certain [expenditure] on food compared with beer or wine. So is the waitress going to stand there and say you can’t have another beer after your meal, unless you have another order of fries? It seems ridiculous to me,” he said.
Besides, the bring-you-own-bottle system which operates now works and saves diners having to pay substantial mark-ups on their drinks, he said.
“As for restaurants complaining about the current system and suggesting beer and wine sales would help them do better, I think the problem is the prices are too high given the quality of the food.
“Look at the successful restaurants — take the Art Cliff Diner as one example — which are packed all the time and the food is very good and the prices are reasonable.
Finally, he said, many people came to Tisbury because it was a quiet, family-friendly, mellow place.
Peter Cronig, who said he was selected to be chairman of the pro-alcohol sales group, Citizens to Repeal Prohibition said, “because most of the business people live in other towns,” is one who believes not only that the change will be good for business, but also for sobriety.
“People won’t be carrying anything in,” he said, referring to the fact that once a restaurant is licensed, it cannot also allow people to bring their own.
“Right now you can back up a trailer truck load of beer, wine, hard liquor, if you want. And people do bring in cases and drink away.”
The fact that restaurants will have to ensure customers have adequate meals with their drinks (and, although he did not say it, pay considerably more for those drinks), will make for more restrained drinking.
“I just think in the economy of things, we need something,” he said, adding:
“Taxes keep going up, our tax rate for commercial [premises] keeps rising.
“We’ve been working on this thing for three years now, we’ve gone through more committees and public hearings and town meetings, and we just think it’s a good thing, to help out.”
Mr. Cronig’s side makes the point that the change is very restrictive and does not presage further proliferation of drinking establishments.
There can be no bars of the Oak Bluffs type here, and the law could not be changed to permit them without going through the whole process of going to the state, going to town meeting, going through all those community consultations all over again.
“It’s baby steps, and I think it’s good. If it only goes this far, wonderful,” he said, adding:
“We’re not asking people to spend any money, just give us the opportunity to keep people in town, instead of having to go to Oak Bluffs or Edgartown to a restaurant where they serve beer and wine.
“We’re not asking for a lot.”
Also on Tuesday’s ballot is a Proposition 2 1/2 exemption to allow the construction of new irrigation and drainage, topsoil, turf, bleachers, scoreboards nets, water fountains and other works at Veterans Memorial Park.
The project will cost some $493,000. It won support from the Tisbury’s finance and advisory committee and also a strong majority at town meeting.
Polls are open from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the American Legion Hall.
Tisbury election results will be posted on the Gazette Web site as soon as they are available Tuesday evening, at mvgazette.com.