A couple of weeks ago, Dave Eisenberg started a series of posts on BostInno that are covering one thing about Boston that needs to be better. He kicked off the series by taking a look at licensing, specifically about how Cure Lounge got shut down for three days because it couldn’t keep its patrons form dancing. Cure has a license for a DJ, but its patrons are expected to keep their posteriors firmly planted in the seats, or if standing, to not let their hips start swinging side-to-side because the establishment does not have a license for dancing.

This doesn’t really seem logical.

This story speaks to a bigger issue in Boston, one that is not specific to any administration, political party, neighborhood, or type of business. Rather, it’s a problem that can happen in any large city over time. Random departments and city agencies end up regulating one aspect of something, and then this becomes institutionalized over time whether or not it really should have been.

Currently there are four different city agencies or departments within agencies that handle some aspect of licensing in Boston. They are the City of Boston Licensing Board, the Mayor’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Licensing, the Department of Public Works, and the City Clerk’s Office. If you wanted to open a small restaurant that sometimes has live music and offers outdoor seating, you would have to go through three of those departments. And if you wanted to serve beer or wine, you would also need to go through the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

If you’re a wealthy individual starting a business, this isn’t much of a problem. This is the kind of thing lawyers are designed to handle for you: loads of complex paperwork and understanding the intricacies of municipal ordinances and regulations.

What if you’re not already wealthy? What if you want to start a business on your own and you don’t have the resources to hire a law firm to handle all the paperwork for you? Cities are at their best when they are home to a diversity of businesses, from multinational corporations to tiny hole-in-the-wall shops. If it’s too complicated to start a business, those tiny shops and businesses won’t be able to get off the ground.

Something needs to change.

Liquor Licenses

While all licensing needs a revamp, liquor licenses tend to get the most attention. What’s interesting about liquor licenses is that they are very unique. The number of licenses is controlled by the state, not by the city. These licenses can be bought and sold, but you can’t buy a license to allow patrons to dance. Licenses can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the open market, which makes starting a restaurant or bar very expensive.

This high cost leads owners down one of two paths: either open a high-end establishment where you can charge patrons high prices to recoup your investment, or open an establishment geared towards high-volume drinking focused on getting as many patrons in as possible to recoup your investment.

This structure leaves small, neighborhood spots in a tough spot, and it has stripped licenses away from some neighborhoods entirely. One of City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s motivations in calling for a hearing regarding liquor licensing is that very soon there won’t be a single business with a liquor license on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury and Mattapan. Business owners who held those licenses have sold them to bars and restaurants in the Back Bay and on the waterfront that are willing and able to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them.

This excellent map from Bostonography shows just how bad the geographic balance has become. (Click here for the full article from Bostonography.) The map shows distance for residents to an establishment with a liquor license, with red meaning more places close by have a license.

Everyone should get to enjoy all of the amazing things Boston has to offer. Our attractions should not be clustered in a few neighborhoods. Residents and tourists alike should want to and be encouraged to explore every nook and cranny of the city, and that means having places spread throughout every neighborhood where you can get a bite to eat and have a beer with your neighbor while you watch the game.

Licensing Revamp

Licensing in every aspect in the city needs to be evaluated. Over the decades as Boston’s municipal government has grown in size and scope, it has become less nimble and less able to quickly adapt to the needs of residents. This is not the fault of one person or of one administration, but rather an accumulation over time of power being delegated to various agencies and departments without any long-range thinking.

The city does not need four different agencies or departments that handle licensing. An entrepreneur should not need to hire an expensive lawyer just to walk them through the paperwork needed to open a business. Licenses should not be sold on a market that inflates prices into hundreds of thousands of dollars and limits the diversity of businesses that can afford to open.

We applaud Councilor Pressley’s efforts, and we look forward to participating in the hearing regarding liquor licenses, but we hope the City Council and Mayor’s Office will all consider the issues of licensing in general, and begin working towards a solution that benefits City Hall, businesses owners, and most importantly residents.

– Nick Downing, Future Boston Research Coordinator

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About Future Boston Alliance

Future Boston Alliance is a non-profit organization seeking to revolutionize our city's creative economy. By advocating for new talent and businesses and holding educational events, we aim to make Boston a hub for collaboration, innovation, and culture.

4 responses »

  1. skeptic says:

    The liquor license quota is set by the state – the city is forced to work within that quota unless state law is changed. Now the city may not be lobbying the state aggressively enough to change this, but this crazy quota system isn’t entirely the city’s fault.

    Additionally, a major obstacle is the current restaurant owners who have purchased a liquor licenses for hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the quota goes up, something they paid big big money for loses its value. I think we need to raise the quota, but these are two issues that have to be addressed – the state’s role and the impact it would have on current owner’s.

  2. Jan Dumas says:

    I really don’t see a problem here. Well I do, but not the one you are thinking of.

    No we do not have package stores on every corner and every third block, but how is a lack of quick beer a problem? So some people might have to walk an extra block, not a problem. Me I have to walk 4 blocks to find a package store. I am okay with the short walk. I also know 3 package stores that will deliver if the bill is over 100 dollars. Which if your rich, or like me only drink top shelf is easy.

    That map looks pretty red to me, that big black patch in the upper right corner is Logan Airport. While they do sell alcohol in the airport there is no room, or need to slap a few along the runways.

    Once again you have given us a poorly researched article on a non problem. Cure Lounge did not get closed for allowing dancing. They got in trouble for allowing people to dance on the couches! Totally different thing and something that should not have been allowed.

    Nick how much experience do you have with any municipal government, Boston or other wise? Yes there need to be 4 agencies working on licensing because no one group could handle all the necessary heath and safety issues. The liquor commission does not have the capability to also examine food safety, fire suppression systems and building capacity.

    Now this might be totally off the wall here, but I don’t think you want to relive Coconut Grove while trying to have that late night cocktail while reading a book on using poetry to clean water.

  3. Chandler says:

    Nobody puts Baby in a corner!

  4. @skeptic – yes, these are problems that need to be addressed. There are creative ways to make sure that restaurant owners who have already paid for the licenses they have get to recoup some of their investment. Off the top of my head, we could create licenses that are tied to a specific address or zone so that they can’t be moved, we could phase in licenses over time so that the old licenses lose value less quickly, we could offer more beer/wine licenses at first so that restaurants have a fighting chance in neighborhoods, etc.

    As for state control, Boston certainly has some political sway on Beacon Hill and getting state law changed to allow us more licenses wouldn’t be that hard if the political will was there. And there is one crucial area that Boston has control over – the Bring Your Own Beer (BYO) rules. Mass law allows cities to decide whether or not to allow unlicensed restaurants to let customers bring their own booze. Many cities in the commonwealth and elsewhere allow this with no problems. There’s absolutely no reason Boston shouldn’t also allow this.

    @Jan – that map can be a little misleading. For one thing, it combines both package sales and bars. From my house in Roxbury, there are 4 package stores where I can buy beer and wine within a 15-minute walk of me. Not great compared to when I lived in Florida, California, Montana, South Carolina, and New Hampshire – all of which sold beer in every corner store, generally without incident – but tolerable, I suppose. But the issue at hand is not package stores, which are generally not as hard to get, but licensed bars/restaurants.

    There are only TWO bars within a mile radius of my house on Fort Hill, and one of those is a strip club (Aga’s Highland Tap) that is nearly a 25 minute walk. So assuming that I’m part of the vast majority of people that doesn’t ordinarily go to strip clubs or want to walk 25 minutes to a bar in a city that is supposed to be among the most walkable in the nation, that leaves one bar. That one bar is the only place to get a drink within a 10-20 minute walk of maybe 15,000 people who live and work in Fort Hill, Dudley, and the areas to the east of Washington Street. That’s absolutely insane. It’s also not well-represented on that map because the liquor stores make it appear “hotter” than we really are.

    Boston has a “drinking population” of about 1,000,000 people because of all the tourists, business travelers, and commuters. But thanks to anti-Irish sentiment from 100 years ago, we are the only city in the commonwealth to have a hard cap on the number of our liquor licenses. We absolutely need to fix this, and to have a liquor license system that serves us equitably.

    BTW, for an excellent look at the liquor license system from 2009 (somewhat outdated numbers but generally correct otherwise) check this out: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/articles/2009/11/the-drinks-are-on-them/

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