A group of Swarthmore citizens working to allow liquor licenses in the Ville will finish collecting signatures this Sunday. The organizers, called Swarthmore 21, have been collecting signatures for the last several weeks on a petition reading, “Do you favor the granting of liquor licenses for the sale of liquor in the Borough of Swarthmore?” Swarthmore 21 hopes to get the referendum on the May 16 primary ballot. In order to get on the ballot, the group has to collect 863 signatures before the March 7 deadline.
If passed, the referendum will allow two liquor licenses to be purchased by companies in the Ville.
The rationale for the two-license limit is outlined in a Pennsylvania state law that issues one license to a county for every 3,000 people. Should a third business desire to carry a license, it will have to petition the Borough Council.
According to organizer Pat Francher, the referendum would not add more liquor licenses to Delaware County. Rather, it would only allow Swarthmore businesses to purchase previously existing licenses.
“I know there are people out there that are sitting on licenses. In other words, they don’t own a restaurant. They bought a license at some point in the past as an investment … it’s like owning gold,” said Francher.
The current market price for a liquor license is around $200,000. In addition to buying the license, businesses may have to renovate their space to ensure they meet the requirements set by the state, such as the inclusion of food sales and seating for 30 people.
If the referendum passes, the licenses will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis. Whichever businesses acquire the capital to buy a license and meet state requirements will receive the license.
Why people support
There are many reasons residents of Swarthmore support the referendum, such as easier access to alcohol, increasing economic liberties, and building up downtown Swarthmore.
Organizer Vince Barrett notes that the group believes that the referendum will benefit all of Swarthmore.
“It goes right back to the core mission of the group, which is to make more of our downtown. To hopefully close the empty storefronts, or I should say fill the empty storefronts,” said Barrett. “I’ve lived literally all over the world. I’ve lived many places here in the U.S. when I came to this town there was a lot that I loved, and I still do love. I love that it is a college town. I love the people, I love the trees, the sidewalks, all the things that you normally hear of. But the downtown always perplexed me in that since I’ve been here, less than three years, the number of empty store fronts have grown.”
President of the Swarthmore Conservatives Gilbert Guerra ’19 has been working with Swarthmore 21 to try to gain signatures. Guerra sees this as a bi-partisan issue.
“I think as Swarthmore students, one of the complaints we have about this college is the downtown section is pretty much dead” said Guerra. “I really do believe that if more restaurants have access to liquor licenses, more restaurants will be able to turn a profit and have more of an investment in actually opening up in Swarthmore and being involved in the local community. I think it would help students, I think it would help the local community as well. I really see no downsides to it.”
Jonathan Kay ’20 has also helped to collect signatures on campus. He sees the main advantage as economic, also noting that it also questions the arcaneness of the current law.
“The question isn’t really do we want alcohol in this borough but more what gives the government the right to not allow people to do that. So even if you might not be super excited about the idea of, let’s say you live in the Ville and your not excited about students having more ready access to alcohol. … I think even they might be okay with this and might support this because they acknowledge that this is a ridiculous arcane provision to have still around,” said Kay.
Discourse surrounding opposition
Although the majority of people seem to be in favor of the referendum, some have raised concerns.
One concern brought up by the owner of Occasionally Yours, Scott Richardson, in a recent Daily Gazette article was that the licenses would only benefit the businesses who are able to receive them.
Francher explained that this would not be the case. Allowing two businesses to obtain liquor licenses would increase foot traffic in the Ville and help all businesses. This phenomenon has been seen in several other Pennsylvania towns who have removed the prohibition on liquor licenses.
“This is not about picking winners or losers. This is about creating the rising tide that is going to lift all boats, and I guess secondly to that is what’s stopping him from doing it, nothing’s stopping him from doing that. If he thinks that’s the key to success then he should raise the money to expand his physical footprint and acquire the license and open the business in that way,” said Barrett.
Some people, on and off campus, have expressed concern about college students deciding the election. Some say that people who live here for four years should not be deciding how the town is run.
Guerra addressed the concern that college students would have a disproportionate influence in the referendum by arguing that college students live in this town for four years and should have the right to vote in borough’s elections. Even people who live in the Ville may not be here for four years.
Barrett says despite the fact that Swarthmore 21 has been canvassing on campus, most of the signatures have come from residents. Swarthmore 21 has been tabeling at Sharples but says most of the signatures come from residents.
“In terms of the students deciding it, I don’t know that the number of signatures that we have, and I haven’t counted them one by one, but the number of signatures we have I would say 80 [to] 90 percent are residents to the five to 10 percent that are students,” said Barrett.
The referendum, if passed, will be on the May 16th ballot, occurring after students leave for the summer break. In order to vote, students would have to request an absentee ballot.
“If we get the signatures, then we would start talking about phase two, which is how do we get the vote out. If students who have signed that petition are that interested: number one, we appreciate significantly that they took the time and the interest to do this, but if they’re that interested then why shouldn’t they be filing an absentee ballot. It is their choice” said Barrett.
Francher agreedt, but Swarthmore 21 has not made plans for a significant get-out-the-vote campaign on campus if the referendum is put on the ballot.
One issue that was brought up with the referendum was up for vote in 2001 was that allowing liquor licenses would increase disorderly conduct and other alcohol related arrests in the town.
Swarthmore 21 makes the argument that the opening of the Inn and their liquor licenses has disproven this fact. Francher says that since the opening of the Inn, the Borough has not seen an increase in alcohol related arrests.
Swarthmore College Alcohol and Other Drugs Counselor Josh Ellow said that it is impossible to know how the liquor licenses could affect the Borough, but these discussions could help the Borough prepare.
“It’s hard to know because a lot of the time, people are taking their assumptions and expectations about what an environment with alcohol looks like, and then attributing these traits to this setting before they knowing what the system would actually look like. That can be problematic or it can be a good proactive way to make sure things are in order,” said Ellow.
On campus impact
In regards to how the liquor licenses would impact the party scene at Swarthmore, Kay says he did not think it would change patterns in students’ alcohol consumption.
“It’s not really like this is going to fundamentally change the dynamic of liquor consumption at the college or the borough. This is going to help some local businesses … it’s going to be little things, but it is long overdue,” said Kay.
Ellow has not seen changes to the town since the opening of the Inn at Swarthmore. He believes that more licenses would not have a drastic effect of alcohol consumption on campus. He said the college would assess changes as they occured.
Ellow says the responsibility of making sure alcohol consumption was both legal and responsible. He mentioned several precautions businesses could take, such as training servers to know when to stop serving a person who may be over-consuming and getting the technology to make sure the I.D.s were legal.
It is unclear if the presence of more licenses would result in more alcohol-related arrests.
“If it happened in the Ville it would probably be part of either a MOU [memorandum of understanding] between pubsafe, or Swarthmore police, or maybe a specific policy consideration at least, how that would be handled. Technically if something happened [in the Ville] and Swarthmore police come they don’t have to necessarily tell Swarthmore’s Pub Safe or link our campus in any way. I think because the relationship has been close, maybe they would with a simple thing like that. So it might still look the same way where if something happened there, and Swarthmore police told the campus, [the Borough police] would essentially be doing the same thing as if they got transported from our campus would look,” said Ellow.
Once Swarthmore 21 is done collecting signatures on Sunday, it will turn the petition over to the Borough who will then verify the petition. Barrett is cautiously optimistic that Swarthmore 21 will be able to collect the 863 signatures that are required for the referendum to get on the ballot, but said they will not know for sure if the referendum is on the ballot for several weeks.
If the referendum does make the ballot, students who are registered in Swarthmore will have to make a decision as to if they want to request an absentee ballot for the election. The request would have to be filed in April, meaning any get out the vote organization on campus would have only a few weeks to organize.