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Brattleboro looks anew at liquor licenses

New committee looks at revamping requirements

BRATTLEBORO—An ad hoc committee recently created by the Selectboard is studying possible new criteria for issuing liquor licenses.

The committee held its first meeting on Monday, and Selectboard member Ken Schneck said the initial goal is to “pinpoint what happens in the Selectboard’s process and [determine] what questions the board can ask” people seeking liquor licenses.

Town staff and the state Department of Liquor Control (DLC) look at the backgrounds of individuals applying for licenses, while the Selectboard looks at the potential impact of a new or existing liquor license on the community’s health and safety.

Currently, Selectboard members, town staff, representatives from local drug abuse prevention organizations, and the state comprise the ad hoc committee, formed at the Oct. 3 meeting.

Some of the suggested criteria at Monday’s meeting included a list of best practices, checking to see if potential proprietors have records in other states, and requiring training manuals from business owners.

Selectboard member Ken Schneck raised the question of “what criteria” that led to the board, in its capacity of the local liquor commission, calling a special meeting Oct. 3.

According to Town Attorney Robert Fisher, business owners must receive approval at the municipal and state levels to obtain a liquor license in Vermont. Applications go first to Town Clerk Annette Cappy, who notifies the board, and the Police and Fire departments.

Police Chief Eugene Wrinn said his department checks the potential license holder for local or state violations and compiles reports for the Selectboard.

However, if the potential proprietor has had issues with a business or liquor license or was involved in criminal activity outside Vermont, Wrinn said, that history wouldn’t show up during the town’s or state’s checks.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag said the town notifies the fire department in case it needs to conduct any health or safety checks.

If approved by the town, the application or renewal moves up the ladder to the state Department of Liquor Control. The state also vets the proprietor for infractions committed within the state.

Fisher told the board that the granting of a liquor license “is a privilege and it can be done with conditions.”

Also, he said, the board can revoke or suspend a license it previously approved “for good reason” that the board can justify — even when a proprietor has met all requirements.

Robin Rieske, a regional prevention consultant for the Vermont Department of Health, stressed that the push to establish criteria for the Selectboard when considering liquor licenses did not represent an attempt to limit business in town or an anti-alcohol campaign.

Instead, she said, the move would help provide support and accountability. For responsible business owners, the criteria should prove easy to meet, she added.

Issues?

Selectboard members and the public had raised concerns about the number of liquor outlets in town at previous board meetings.

According information from the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition (BAPC), which promotes drug and alcohol prevention through education, policy changes, media campaigns, advocacy, increased law enforcement, and training, the town had 31 retail establishments with licenses to sell alcohol and 50 bars or restaurants with licenses to serve as of January 2011.

The BAPC estimated that those establishments provide one alcohol outlet for every 172 residents.

Since January, however, the town has lost several restaurants that had served alcohol, including Alici’s Bistro, Adagio Trattoria, the Riverview Cafe, and The Mole’s Eye.

In response to issues such as fights in front of some downtown bars, or police stopping drivers for driving under the influence, Sondag said, the board instigated quarterly bar-owner meetings.

New liquor license holders must attend these meetings, as well as established licensees flagged with multiple violations, said Wrinn.

These meetings, however, fall into the category of policy, rather than under a town ordinance, said Wrinn.

The police department also sends alcohol violation notices to establishments involved in a police call. Wrinn said the goal with the notices is to build partnerships with businesses in dealing with the unhealthy manifestations of the overuse of alcohol.

For example, said Wrinn, if a driver is stopped for a DUI, police ask “where did you have your last drink?”

If the person pinpoints one bar, the BPD sends a notice and asks for response from the owner, Wrinn said.

Some bars respond and some don’t, he said.

Responding to the notices has been voluntary, but the town will soon require owners to respond to the alcohol violation notices.

What the BPD and board look for in the responses to the notices is how the bar remedies a situation, like over-serving, that may have led to a person driving drunk, said Wrinn.

Wrinn added that some patrons will point fingers at bars that did nothing wrong, in which case the notices give the bars a chance to clear themselves.

Ultimately, the Selectboard, acting as the local liquor commissioners, has the authority to issue sanctions and place conditions on the liquor licenses, said Beth Shrader, ad-hoc committee member and BAPC director.

In conjunction with the state, BAPC increased the number of trainings for managers and employees of businesses selling alcohol to look for problems like over-serving or failing to check patrons’ identification.

Rieske said the data she has seen points more toward issues with management and over-serving and less toward issues like serving underage drinkers.

Most underage drinkers obtain their alcohol from someone over 21, said Rieske.

According to data released by the BAPC in January, of the Windham Southeast area students in grades 8-12 who drank alcohol in the previous 30 days, 43 percent were given the alcohol, 31 percent gave someone money to purchase alcohol for them, and 11 percent got it, or stole it, from home.

“I think the Selectboard is going in the right direction with what they’re doing,” said Bill Manch, state liquor control officer for Windham County.

Manch said the state gives Selectboards the authority to place a lot of conditions on liquor licenses “within reason.”

The state tends to weigh its approval of liquor licenses toward the towns’ decisions, said Manch.

In the state’s view, towns deal with alcohol-related issues or arrests, so they should have the first-line authority, he said.

The the state is reluctant to approve a license for an establishment the town voted down, Manch added.

Manch conducts more than 20 quarterly inspections of businesses with liquor licenses in town.

Manch said, the common issues he encounters while inspecting bars were staff over-serving patrons and disorderly conduct. In retail outlets, he identifies people buying alcohol on behalf of a minor as the largest problem.

Brattleboro sees a lot of action because of its status as a hub town, said Manch. Still, Manch felt the town’s alcohol-related incidents per capita “were not different than the rest of the state.”

In Manch’s experience, “a good 90 percent” of crimes involve alcohol “in some shape or form, because alcohol alters people’s way of thinking.”

But drinking also involves behavior — a hard thing to influence, he said. What towns can regulate, or educate, are business owners and staff.

A challenging reputation

Alyssa Blittersdorf and Alan Blackwell knew all about the Metropolis Wine Bar & Cocktail Lounge’s “sullied” reputation as a drug hangout and unsafe environment when they bought the Elliot Street wine bar.

Blackwell, who worked at Metropolis during its better days in 2006, said when he and Blittersdorf decided to purchase Metropolis, they wanted to keep the name and continue serving wine and cocktails.

So, he said, the couple took changing the bar’s reputation “as a challenge.”

The first-time business owners went before the Selectboard in its role as local liquor commissioners on April 17. Not knowing what to expect, said Blackwell, the couple attended their hearing “over-prepared” with their business plan and financials.

“Alyssa is a huge optimist, and I’m a huge realist,” Blackwell said.

The board approved the license application, and Metropolis re-opened in July.

“We wanted to create a comfortable and safe place,” said Blackwell.

Blackwell said he and Blittersdorf, both in their late 20s, completed most of the renovations themselves. They changed the lighting, redesigned the interior, beautified the storefront’s façade with paint and hanging flower pots, and installed a downstairs lounge. He said the positive feedback from customers has “been amazing.”

The new owners also added a security camera to the downstairs lounge. The downstairs could prove “too much of a temptation for some people” without one, said Blackwell.

Music at Metropolis stays at a conversation-friendly level that, according to Blackwell, won’t hide a drunken conversation.

Through the six days a week that the Metropolis is open, the couple is on the premises because they want to see firsthand what is happening in their bar, said Blackwell.

Also, the couple is on a first-name basis with most town police officers and won’t hesitate to call if there is a problem on the premises.

According to Blackwell, the “personality” the couple have given the wine bar has helped erase the assumption that Metropolis would have a permissive atmosphere under the new management.

“We’re excited for people to judge [Metropolis] for themselves. This is our baby right now,” said Blackwell.

But Blackwell gives his customers much of the credit for protecting the wine bar’s new and improved reputation.

“People love what this place is becoming,” he said.

“We wanted to create an environment different than others in town,” Blackwell said, adding he loves the idea of people spending an evening strolling the downtown from the establishment to dinner, to the movies, to meeting with friends.

Metropolis specializes in custom-infused alcohol that the owners blend themselves. The couple displays the infusions-in-progress behind the bar in large class containers. The containers elicit curiosity from customers who check in to see when new flavors are ready, said Blackwell.

Customers’ curiosity helps build an environment of trying new flavors and enjoying time with friends, he said, adding few customers ask to slam back shots.

The infusions represent “playtime” for Blackwell, but adds that they also represent a “huge trial and error” process that sometimes “fails miserably.”

Right now, the couple are experimenting with a pumpkin pie infusion of vanilla, pumpkin, spices, and raw sugar.

Blackwell thinks this unique aspect of their business not only helps build a regular clientele but also engages customers with the bar. He feels this engagement helps support the lounge’s growing reputation as a safe but fun place.

Blackwell counts a book group and a mothers’ group as regular customers who use the downstairs lounge.

However, Blackwell said, “there are always special days” in dealing with customers for any business that serves alcohol.

But with the environment fostered by the owners and the participation of regular customers, Blackwell has not seen people walking through the door with the sole desire to “get drunk.”

“If you want to go out and get wasted, there are cheaper options [than Metropolis],” Blackwell adds, referring to the lounge’s cocktails that cost around $9.

Blackwell and Blittersdorf met while working in the restaurant business, and although they enjoyed the work, they imagined that owning their own business would be more satisfying.

The business has proved financially successful in its first three months, said Blackwell.

Blackwell said that the couple has a plan for Metropolis’ future but are more involved with the new business’s present.

“We love each other and we love this business,” Blackwell said. “We’re so grateful for it.”

Community impact

In a separate interview, Schneck said his ideal outcome for the ad hoc committee’s process is developing a set of criteria the board can use to evaluate liquor license applications.

The board has no framework at present, Schneck said.

By comparison, the Town Arts Committee has more than 20 criteria it uses to evaluate potential pieces of public art, said Schneck, noting that establishing criteria for the board does not involve restricting or taking away licenses.

Schneck said he wants to “do due diligence. Right now, I feel like a rubber stamp [regarding] community impact.”

The board should look at community impact when considering liquor licenses, Schneck said.

“I like the direction this is going,” he said.

Schneck said his concerns around the lack of criteria came about as he watched the Selectboard renew and approve new liquor licenses back in April, when all licenses come up for renewal.

He feels that part of the Selectboard’s role of looking at the big community picture is determining the impact of alcohol establishments on the town as a whole.

No specific alcohol-related issues in town especially concern Schneck. But, he said, conversations during the community forum on crime the town hosted in August noted a “clear connection between alcohol and drugs, and crime.”

Some of Schneck’s interest in establishing criteria for the board comes from his experience as an alcohol and drugs educator and his position as dean of students at Marlboro College.

“When it comes to unhealthy relationships with alcohol, there’s no such thing as the ‘One and Only Brattleboro’,” said Schneck, referring to the town’s marketing slogan.

In general, Schneck would like to see a more options for people to socialize in town, sans alcohol.

Schneck said he understands that fostering a social scene in Brattleboro drives the number of bars in downtown. But, he adds, alcohol-serving establishments leave out the portion of the community in recovery.

If a recovering alcoholic’s only social option is a bar, the choice becomes his or her health, or being a social being, said Schneck.

There’s not a dean of students in the country who would not say “yes” if asked if alcohol and drugs pose problems on college campuses, said Schneck.

But, unlike other communities, he said that Brattleboro is “willing to step up” and look at the issues.

Schneck expects that formal invitations to the committee’s meetings will be sent to proprietors, who he described as “an invaluable voice in this conversation.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #123 (Wednesday, October 19, 2011).

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