Custom and commerce


Updated: Wine, beer, and liquor availability feature in town warrant and ballot questions before voters in Chilmark and Tisbury, respectively. While the particulars in each town represent slightly different points on the same experience curve, and address somewhat different interests, the general thrust in both towns would normalize both custom and commerce in a healthy and helpful way.

In Tisbury, voters in the town election May 9 will be asked whether the selectmen should be allowed to convert current beer and wine licenses to allow the sale of all alcoholic beverages. This would reflect a logical progression after six years of trouble-free experience with beer and wine sales. Selectmen Larry Gomez and Melinda Loberg supported placing the question on the ballot, while Tristan Israel, who has balefully called the prospect of expanded alcohol licenses “the beginning of the end,” abstained.

A yes vote would accommodate visitors at the heart of our economy and our tax base, and it would accommodate the interests of business owners and employees who depend on and serve the interests of our visitors as well as year-round residents. And in Tisbury’s particular case, where a very important search for a viable model of downtown life is under way and growing in urgency, full alcohol licenses will make an important contribution to the options and resources the community needs at its disposal. All this can be accomplished with no obvious change in the fabric of town life and no threat to public safety.

The circumstance in Chilmark, the Vineyard’s last holdout barring restaurant sales of alcohol while allowing guests to bring their own, is a bit different. The scale in Chilmark — just a handful of seasonal restaurants right now — is different from Tisbury’s by an order of magnitude. And while the ballot question (which would begin the process that would eventually result in allowing up to five larger full-service restaurants to serve wine and beer) has been anticipated as other Island towns have made this change, there has been no direct experience with the consequences of beer and wine service, including public safety and possible costs.

By far the larger difference is that Chilmark, unlike Tisbury, has an enormously advantaged tax base of expensive homes, many occupied only briefly and requiring few services, to draw on, and has no financial interest in actively supporting any commercial activity. It also has a sense of place which is at the least indifferent to all but discretionary summer commerce, and is for the most part insulated from concerns that a handful of restaurants and their employees might compete poorly, or more broadly that their town center or storybook fishing village might fail. So Chilmark voters will likely see their warrant question through a lens of very local self-image, rather than one integrated with Island-wide interests.

Voters in each town should vote yes on these questions. Since current regulations in both towns allow drinking as part of dining, the change is largely invisible except within the restaurants themselves. Making rules that smile on patrons carrying alcohol into a restaurant but frowning on buying a drink directly can only have the virtue of quaintness on their side, along with a touch of hypocrisy; it’s hard to imagine many of us choosing a destination on that basis. These next steps should get us comfortably past the idea of nostalgia and self-mythology forming the basis for public policy and community building.

Editor’s note: Editorial was updated to reflect that Tisbury voters will vote on adding alcohol licenses for restaurants at the polls May 9.