Council divided on downtown liquor law changes

Council divided on downtown liquor law changes

WOONSOCKET – A proposal to loosen restrictions on businesses seeking liquor licenses in the downtown area has drawn mixed reactions from city councilors who say they want to promote new business along Main Street but are concerned about the potential impact on schools and churches.

On Monday, councilors considered for the second time a proposal to ask the city’s General Assembly delegation to sponsor legislation removing a statewide restriction on liquor licenses within 200 feet of a church or school in the city’s Downtown Overlay District. The district, created by the council in 2015 to promote economic growth, borders an area that follows Main Street, North Main Street and South Main Street. Under current state law, businesses seeking to obtain a liquor license within 200 feet of a church or school must first obtain a legislative exemption from the General Assembly.

The measure, pitched by supporters as an effort to remove red tape in a district sorely in need of economic growth, drew a cool response from fellow councilors when former Councilor Julia Brown first proposed it in April. At the time, councilors raised concerns about removing protections for religious groups and voted to table the proposal.

This week, it was brought up again by Councilor David Soucy, who took up sponsorship of the measure after Brown resigned her seat on the council late last month. Soucy argued the request, if granted by state legislators, would follow the spirit of the Downtown Overlay District in removing roadblocks to new business.

“This is why you created the district. It’s because we want to generate and make it easier to bring businesses into the district,” he said.

The measure’s fiercest advocate so far is Garrett Mancieri, the former city councilor who also serves as chairman of the Downtown Woonsocket Collaborative. Mancieri pointed out the large number of churches and schools within the city’s downtown area and told councilors that under the current layout, 41 percent of the properties in the overlay district would require General Assembly approval before obtaining a liquor license. With another church slated to appear before the Zoning Board for approval next week, that number could soon rise to 49 percent, making nearly half of the properties in the district unable to obtain a liquor license without state approval.

“There’s just conflict after conflict that comes up that I would like to see addressed,” he said.

In particular, he raised concerns about properties that would otherwise be ideal for development as restaurants or bars except for their close placement to schools and churches. Among these he included a former Thai restaurant across the street from St. Charles Borromeo Church, the former CYO center building on Federal Street and a property for sale at 2 Monument Square.

“As you know, the Stadium Theatre really draws a lot of business to our city and it would be great to see a café or restaurant in that space,” he said.

He also pointed out the city’s potential as a location for the growing craft brewery scene, but added he thinks Pawtucket and Providence have done a better job of utilizing their resources on this front. In March, Lops Brewing, a brewery slated to open on North Main Street, became the most recent city business to seek a legislative exemption due to its location within 200 feet of Harris Elementary School. Though the exemption was granted, Mancieri pointed out that the General Assembly’s six-month recess could prevent future businesses from opening under similar exemptions. He also cited statistics that ranked Rhode Island 45th in the country in brewery employment growth, placing it behind its New England peers.

“That kind of tells you that some of our liquor laws are a little too stringent and we’re not really using it to the best of our ability to grow our economy,” he said.

Despite the arguments in favor, councilors still had concerns over the request and opted to take another look at the measure during an upcoming work session. Council President Daniel Gendron said after the meeting he would be open to passing the measure if amended to apply only to restaurants and maintains the state requirement for bars and liquor stores.

“I would hate to see a bar room placed next to the school, and in speaking with the sponsor (Soucy), he’s speaking more of a restaurant that serves alcohol instead of a bar,” he said.

Any request issued by the City Council for a legislative change would still require action by the city’s General Assembly before it could move forward on the state level. The measure would also maintain the city’s ability to grant or deny liquor licenses for individual establishments.