The discussion underscored the difficulty in finding any public consensus on an issue that elected officials said they’d like to resolve after years of questioning.
By Matt Skoufalos
The first public forum on alcohol sales within Haddon Heights was a measured, cautiously optimistic discussion that saw borough residents express their desires to protect the town’s existing restaurant scene from outside interests.
The follow-up event was a more charged affair, with opponents of any such measure—including former mayor Scott Alexander—out in full force and addressing their local government with emotional rhetoric.
The governing body heard from probably a dozen speakers over two-and-a-half-hours, and all that discussion revealed a community seeking to balance its colonial traditions with the desire to grow its tiny downtown business district.
Resident Tim Gronen argued that permitting liquor licenses is a slippery slope that could unravel the social fabric of a community that has known “this prohibition” for “over 80 percent of our lifetime.
“Change the alcohol,” Gronen said. “Change the signs. I want some neon. Let’s get some fast food in here.”
Councilman Stephen Berryhill asked Gronen whether he believed the existing restaurants in town retailing New Jersey wines, as permitted by state statute, had denigrated the community.
“Is that neon lights, fast food?” Berryhill said. “Did wine start that slippery slope?”
“No,” Gronen said. “[But] that’s happened, and now we’re on this point.”
Resident Frank Buck said that the town could do without businesses that would depend on alcohol for their survival.
“Do we value these types of establishments?” Buck asked. “I certainly do not. I see that we’ve let the wine in. It’s like the camel’s nose is under the tent.”
Resident Jim Jenkins, who described himself as a 16-year bartender and 20-year restaurant equipment salesman, said that he wanted the council to present a plan before being asked to decide his feelings on the sale of alcohol in Haddon Heights.
“I don’t know where I stand on that because I don’t know what it looks like,” Jenkins said.
Councilman Jack Merryfield countered, “I don’t want to spend two years developing a plan to find out that the people didn’t want it.”
Council President Kathryn Lange said that the council was in a bit of a no-man’s land on the issue because, “if we went and tried to flesh it out, it looks like we’re pro-license.
“This was to get a pulse,” she said. “Personally, I think the ballot’s the way to go.”
Former Haddon Heights Mayor Scott Alexander, who had taken a town-wide survey on the alcohol issue during his tenure, carried on a lengthy and occasionally heated exchange with council members during which he, too, advocated for a public referendum to decide the question of alcohol sales.
During his tenure, Alexander said, the question polled about 50-50, but “there wasn’t a mandate.” He said that a 60-65-percent margin would have convinced him that the liquor license issue was something the public wanted.
Forte said that the alcohol question is “part of an agenda from years ago” from different restaurateurs and residents in town, and he hoped that public discussion would give the town the information necessary to make a decision one way or another.
“I want to put it to bed,” he said.
“If you really don’t like it, then you need to tell us right now,” she said. “If you’re in favor of it, then you need to tell us right now. If you’re ambivalent, then we need to know.”
Definition of terms
Solicitor Albert Olizi pointed out that the greater purpose of allowing alcohol sales in Haddon Heights would be to preserve the handful of restaurants that already operate in town.
“I know the only reason Giumarello’s left was because there was a liquor license available [in Haddon Township],” Olizi said. “If there was a license [here], there would have never been this discussion.”
He described the wine service at Elements, Kunkel’s, and Anthony’s as “completely an accommodation for patrons of that restaurant.
“Many times, people would leave for Barrington [to purchase a bottle of alcohol], go, and not come back,” Olizi said.
Olizi also added that the language of any alcohol ordinance could be tightly crafted so as not to create “a restaurant that depends on the sale of alcohol for its existence.
“You can limit how food and drink proportionately is consumed,” Olizi said; “limit the number of seats at the bar, the number of high-top tables. There’s a lot of things you can do to limit [the extent of the license].”
Some members of the audience appealed to the council to decide the question by referendum. Brett Harrison, who owns a property in the 500 block of Haddon Avenue but doesn’t live in town said it would “allow people who have a vested interest in this town” to make their feelings heard.
However, the council said that not only would any such referendum be non-binding—because the question of changing a town ordinance legally is the work of its legislative body—but that there is too little time to put it on the November ballot.
“We are dry by resolution,” Olizi said, adding that it would take the drafting and approval of another resolution to override the existing statute.
Resident Rose Fitzgerald, who said she used to work on alcohol licensing in Philadelphia, challenged council members “to find a cute, little restaurant like Anthony’s or Elements in a town that has a liquor license.”
Fitzgerald said she was afraid of a liquor licensing bid drawing big-box, chain restaurants to town. She worried that larger corporate interests would outbid the local restaurants for the liquor licenses.
Olizi countered that the bid for the license would only be open to “someone who has a place or plans for a place in town, and that the borough zoning board would first define the areas in which any establishment selling alcohol would be permitted to operate.
“You want to put it where it will do the town good,” Olizi said.
Furthermore, Olizi downplayed the idea that any licensing bid would be a tremendous windfall for the borough.
“If the revenue generated isn’t worth doing,” then a bidder won’t meet an exorbitant reserve price, he said. “The value of a license is determined by the speed with which the person who buys it can recover their investment,” Olizi said.
In response to Fitzgerald’s challenge, resident Marshall Hatfield said that “Moorestown would be a pretty good example to study” for people considering a town of similar character that has benefited from the sale of alcohol licenses.
“And they didn’t have open meetings like this,” Forte added.
The mayor also pointed out that allowing the sale of alcohol in Haddon Heights would not override the B.Y.O.B. laws in town, but merely allow restaurateurs to charge a corking fee of a few dollars for any outside beverages brought into their establishments.
‘It’s going to bring new life’
The lone voice of the downtown business district to speak on the public record was Chef Anthony Iannone, of Anthony’s Creative Italian Cuisine.
Iannone said that the liquor licensing would allow him to improve his own revenue base, and would also help generate new business for the other stores in the downtown shopping district.
“If I’m busy, the downtown is busy,” Iannone said. “It’s going to bring new life; people that might want to open new businesses, make investments, buy homes downtown.
“I struggle with people being afraid of this,” he said. “I’m a non-voting business owner. This works for the town. I think if you give it a chance after two or three years, you’re going to see the positive side.
“I’m looking to complement what we do, advertise my business, and bring people in,” Iannone said.
Lange asked why, if Iannone had known that Haddon Heights was a dry town, he still decided to locate his business there.
His response: “I thought eventually we would get a liquor license.”