Rockport models wet/dry choice
Peter Beacham, a businessman who spearheaded a successful campaign to uncap liquor sales in Rockport, told the Tisbury Business Association (TBA) last week the effects of going from a dry to wet town have been nothing but positive for his community.
"Our town doesn't look any different, with one exception," said Mr. Beacham, guest speaker at the TBA's annual dinner on March 13. "Lights are on in restaurants and people are in them."
Although Rockport has about twice the population and number of voters as Tisbury, the two towns share many similarities as seaside communities with a seasonal economy based on tourism. Mr. Beacham's account of Rockport's road from dry to wet offered interesting parallels for the TBA, as Tisbury may be undertaking the same Home Rule Petition (HRP) legislative process in considering whether to allow limited sales of beer and wine in some Vineyard Haven establishments.
Peter Beacham (second from right) holds a historic sign from Rockport's campaign to end its 150-year-old dry status. Lending him a hand (from left) are Tisbury Business Association officers Ann Hunt, treasurer, Amy Levine, vice president, and Jon Nelson, president.
Several TBA members initiated the move to allow alcohol sales in Tisbury, and board member Susan Goldstein, co-owner of the Mansion House Inn and Zephrus Restaurant, invited Mr. Beacham to share his experiences at the annual dinner meeting.
Although not all of the TBA members are in favor of beer and wine sales, the membership voted unanimously in December in support of putting a referendum on the state ballot to let Tisbury voters decide.
For the April 10 annual town meeting, the Tisbury selectmen drafted a warrant article which will ask voters to authorize them to file an HRP to the state's general court to allow the sale of beer and wine within certain parameters.
If voters say yes and the state legislature approves the town's petition, it would then come back for a final vote in Tisbury on a bi-annual state election ballot.
Mr. Beacham told the TBA it will be important to make sure voters understand what they will be voting on at town meeting.
"I think it really needs to be stressed that the town meeting is not approving beer and wine, because that is not a town meeting issue," Mr. Beacham said. "It's a town-wide issue, and everybody needs to have the opportunity to vote on it."
After starting and growing a successful chain of office furniture stores, Mr. Beacham and his wife, Janice, ran an antiques store in downtown Rockport. Mr. Beacham's concerns about Rockport's business economy prompted him to start the campaign to allow alcohol sales by forming a committee called "A Better Choice for Rockport," with four other people.
After talking about how to pursue their goal, the group decided to pursue the HRP option. As a first step, they hired a professional to conduct a survey to find out what the people of Rockport who lived there on a year-round basis wanted. The survey showed that Rockport residents would like to change the rules against liquor, but only if there were very specific regulations in place to control the sales, Mr. Beacham said.
Many Tisbury restaurant and inn owners have said they lose customers who get up and walk out when they find they cannot order a glass of wine with their meal, heading to Oak Bluffs or Edgartown instead. Mr. Beacham said the same happened in Rockport. Although people would stay in Rockport, which actually has more motel and hotel rooms available than Gloucester, they would head to Gloucester's restaurants, where they could buy an alcoholic beverage.
Mr. Beacham, who serves as chairman of Rockport's economic development committee, emphasized that alcohol sales are not a cure-all for a town's economic woes, but can be part of overall revitalization efforts. "It's one small step in trying to rebuild the economy in town," Mr. Beacham said. "I think you'll have less vacant stores and more activity in town."
Rockport, like Tisbury, sometimes struggles to achieve a quorum at town meetings, averaging about 200 voters. When the home rule petition article came up, however, more than 1,000 voters came to town meeting, voting 750 to 250 to approve it.
After a home rule petition article passed at town meeting, Rockport's selectmen set up a committee made up of an equal number of people for and against alcohol sales. They drafted and unanimously agreed on a set of regulations, a step Mr. Beacham recommended so that voters know exactly what they are voting for before they go to the polls.
By crafting its own regulations, Rockport allowed restaurants and inns to retain their "bring your own bottle" policy if preferred. Many of the rules Rockport adopted are similar to ones proposed by the Tisbury selectmen, such as requiring alcoholic beverages to be consumed with meals only.
In April 2005, Rockport voters passed the alcohol question on the state ballot by 1,939 to 1,562. Doug Hewson, co-owner of Mediterranean Restaurant with his wife, Leslie, asked Mr. Beacham what helped convince people to vote yes.
Mr. Beacham said four people on his committee put together a brochure addressing all of the issues they heard people discussing around town and mailed it to every voter. Committee members also met with every community group they could, held public hearings at the high school, did radio interviews, wrote letters to the local newspaper, and set up an interactive website.
Mr. Beacham said his committee knew their opposition and did not underestimate them. Many were new to Rockport and in their 40's, he said.
On July 12, Rockport granted the first liquor license to the Emerson Inn. Mr. Beacham had the honor of buying the first legal drink there, a vodka martini, a history-making libation that prompted calls from reporters in the U.S., London, and Ireland.
Following Mr. Beacham's remarks, TBA members elected Jon Nelson president, who had served as president pro tem after Steve Perlman resigned last August. Bowl and Board owner Garry Metters, Brickman's manager Vasska Fondren, and Vineyard Playhouse marketing and development manager Brooke Hardman Ditchfield were elected to TBA's board of directors.
Owner Jean-Marc Dupon and his staff at Le Grenier hosted the TBA event. The menu featured an upscale version of the "potluck" dinner, with a variety of dishes provided by several Tisbury establishments. Doug and Leslie Hewson, owners of Mediterranean, coordinated the group effort by Le Grenier, Art Cliff Diner, Café Moxie, Net Result, Nicky's Italian Café, and Zephrus.
The next day, Susan and Sherman Goldstein hosted a breakfast at the Mansion House Inn to offer the public the opportunity to meet Mr. Beacham and ask questions about how the change from dry to wet affected his community.