A discussion about closing bars earlier in Oak Bluffs pitted local business owners against town officials at Tuesday’s select board meeting.
Stemming from former talks on how to update the town’s alcohol policy, the Oak Bluffs select board took up the agenda item Tuesday at a well attended meeting at town hall.
Select board chair Ryan Ruley said that a number of contributing factors prompted the discussion, including a discrepancy between the town’s common victualler licenses and the existing alcohol policy.
Ruley said the town’s current policy is “contradictory” in that it calls for a 1:30 am closing time, and a 1 am last call; but common victualler license holders for restaurants, who may serve alcohol, have a required 1 am closing time.
Ruley said the aim is to have a consistent and enforceable alcohol policy townwide. “It’s not a good position to be in when we can’t stand on firm grounds,” he said of the current conflicting regulations.
Ruley, who is an Edgartown police officer, said that another factor is that oftentimes patrons leave Edgartown establishments prior to their 12:30 am last call to end their night in Oak Bluffs. To avoid that influx, he said that personally, he’d like to see Oak Bluffs have the same policies.
Ruley then referred to a letter written by Police Chief Jon Searle on behalf of the Oak Bluffs Police Department, advocating for a 1 am closing time, which would align with that of Edgartown.
Oak Bluffs Police Sergeant Dan Cassidy also relayed highlights from Searle’s letter, saying that the department is understaffed with no available reserve officers. “Staffing is definitely an issue with us,” Cassidy said. He noted the department’s 2 am shift change which overlaps with exiting bar patrons in town, causing officers to often work overtime.
The department has also received a number of noise complaints from Campground residents, Cassidy said.
Select board member Brian Packish noted a prior suggestion that there be a police detail with places that serve alcohol, and asked Cassidy what the likelihood of that happening is. “If you don’t mind that they’re wearing a West Tisbury patch or a Chilmark patch, because we don’t have the numbers,” Cassidy replied.
Just like everywhere else on the Island, he said, the police department has been impacted by the worsening housing crisis. He said since he’s started working in Oak Bluffs, he estimates the police department has lost around 25 staff due to the inability to find housing.
No strangers to the effects the housing crisis has on the Island’s workforce, a number of Oak Bluffs business owners pushed for finding an alternative solution that wouldn’t take away from revenue.
Mike Santoro, owner of Fishbones, Lookout Tavern, and the former Ocean View restaurant, opposed the potential change, and suggested a better forum for the discussion that would allow all stakeholders a voice in possible amendments to the town’s alcohol policy.
Select board member Gail Barmakian questioned the effects moving up last call would have on town bars and restaurants. “It’s half an hour,” she said, “honest to God, how much business do you do in the last half hour?”
Larkin Stallings, owner of the Ritz on Circuit Ave, told the board the potential change of operating hours “is not a small thing.” “This is a direct hit to me personally,” he said, “this is a direct hit to my tipped employees, and it’s not a small thing. It’s not . . . We’re talking about the last half hour of our business, and taking a large amount of money out of the pockets of my staff.”
The business’ security and management won’t take a pay cut, Stallings said; “My insurance is not going to go down, my wastewater bill is not going to go down, my property taxes and real estate taxes are not going to go down. My mortgage is not going to go down. . . A half an hour at the end of the night, particularly in the height of the season, it’s a big deal to us.”
The proposed changes “need to be fully vetted,” he said.
Stallings, who is also the president of the Oak Bluffs Business Association, expressed his concern about what the policy change would mean for the town as a whole.
He said he’s been approached by town business owners who wouldn’t even be directly impacted, fearing what a change of operational hours would do to the town.
“My personal feelings are that there is a picture of the reflection of what Oak Bluffs is, and why people choose Oak Bluffs instead of [other towns].”
“I think it has a great deal to do with our identity,” he said, “and how much fun and how different Oak Bluffs is.”
Mark Wallace, owner of Jim’s Package Store, agreed. “Oak Bluffs is the entertainment capital of this Island,” he said. “It’s very important not to shoot yourself in the foot in terms of our town.”
Some select board members questioned if that reputation was a good thing. “Is our identity in Oak Bluffs that you can get drunk later at night?” Ruley asked.
Oak Bluffs is a “vibrant entertainment community,” and “a fun place to go out,” Stallings responded, adding that a late last call means that people, and their money, that come to Oak Bluffs stay in Oak Bluffs.
“I picked Oak Bluffs to put my business eight years ago because it’s Oak Bluffs,” he said. “I came to Oak Bluffs because of the vibe, because of who we are. And if that doesn’t resonate with you, I’m sorry. But it certainly resonates with me, and the people I’ve spoken to.”
He echoed previous sentiments, advocating for better communication among business owners and the police department in hopes of finding a solution.
The select board took no vote, ultimately opting to set a special meeting for March 7 for the creation of a working group that could address the town’s policy.