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UPDATED: Councilors Look to Add More Liquor Licenses, but Watertown Restaurant Owners are Wary

Councilors say the licenses are key to attract new development. Local restaurant owners fear the new restaurants using the licenses will take business away, and devalue their own licenses.

[NOTE: The amount that liquor licenses in Watertown are worth was mistakenly listed as $500,000 in the original version of the story. The correct figure is $200,000.]

Town Councilors explored the idea of adding up to 12 liquor licenses in town as a way to attract new developments in town, but local restaurant owners bristled at the idea fearing that a flood of new restaurants coming in and taking their business away.

Tuesday, a joint meeting of the Economic Development and Planning, Rules and Ordinances and Public Safety subcommittees discussed the idea of adding licenses to make the town an attractive place to build hotels and mixed-use complexes with office space and retail – including restaurants.

The town has 34 licenses for restaurants to sell alcohol – some serve all types of liquor, others just beer and/or wine. The number of licenses is based on a few factors, but primarily on population, said attorney David Doneski, who is working with the town on the issue.

Those licenses can be transferred to different owners or different locations, if approved by the town’s Licensing Board.

The new licenses, however, would be limited to either a restaurant in a hotel, Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli said, or to eateries in targeted locations.

The spots were laid out in the town’s Strategic Framework for Economic Development, Town Council Vice President Steve Corbett said. Most of the areas consist of empty lots or former industrial property that is unused or gets little use.

“New development on private property will be done by private individuals,” Corbett said. “The only thing we can do is create the opportunity to foster private investment.”

The proposal, which must be considered and approved by the Town Council before it becomes a reality, calls for two liquor licenses on each of the five areas designated for redevelopment.

Getting the new liquor licenses will require approval by the State Legislature, too.

Worries of Restaurant Owners

Adding more licenses so that more restaurants can come to Watertown will hurt the ones already in town, said Peter Stahl, the owner of .

“More licenses will not lead to more business for restaurants in town,” Stahl said. “It will just spread it out.”

The foundation of Watertown’s business community is the small business owners, said Kaz Keuchkarian, owner of restaurant. He was bothered that the Strategic Frameworks were developed by going to the 50 largest businesses in town.

“We’re an owner-operated, small business town,” Keuchkarian said. “Why not insert something positive in to existing base of businesses.”

He said he would prefer to see something like adding more parking to the Watertown Square area by building a parking garage.

John Grasso, owner of , said he has seen other towns boost the number of liquor licenses and it was not good for the restaurants already in town.

“I have multiple establishments, including the original one in Dedham,” Grasso said. “We have (mall). They have 10 licenses there and two others were given to establishments in town. We experienced a 10 to 20 percent drop in business the first six months. You get (some of the business) back, but there is a drop.”

Others were concerned that their liquor licenses, which run as much as $200,000, would be devalued. Don Levy, owner of the , said a hotel is a good idea, but adding licenses where the restaurants don’t have to pay for would hurt him and others who have licenses.

“Don’t give licenses away. Don’t devalue what we have,” Levy said. “I had to pay real money for the license. It is an asset and I want to have something I can retire on.”

Under state law the town can charge $3,000 a year to places to use the license, but that is all they can charge, Piccirilli said.

Licenses Needed to Attract Developers

Piccirilli said he does not want to threaten any of the restaurants in town now, and he said the development will not happen unless a liquor license is available.

“Would you build a new building with a restaurant if you couldn’t be guaranteed to get a license?” Piccirilli said.

Town Councilor John Donohue said the only sit down restaurant in town he knows of that does not have a liquor license is the Red Lentil. He owns and holds a liquor license.

Donohue envisions the new restaurants would be smaller, quality places, rather than a larger chain.

“It is not big corporate restaurants we are talking about,” Donohue said. “It will be something like or The Talk.”

The restaurants would serve the offices in the developments, as well as residents of the area. The West Side of town, along Pleasant Street, is in particular need of places to eat, Donohue said.

“On Pleasant Street, from Rosedale Avenue to the Waltham line, there are no walkable restaurants,” Donohue said.

Town Councilor Angeline Kounelis voted against the proposal to increase the liquor license, and said she also opposed the Strategic Frameworks.

“I could not support the Frameworks because the place in East Watertown marked for redevelopment, the Coolidge Hill area, is someone’s home,” Kounelis said. “I could not foresee two liquor licenses in that area.”

The subcommittees voted 4-1 in favor of studying how to increase the number of licenses and see if it is desirable, with Kounelis opposing it. Town Council President Mark Sideris, who sat in the audience for the hearing, said he wants the full council to discuss the idea before giving it to town staff to work on.

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