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 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.
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 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