On May 16, Swarthmore voters have a chance to make a real difference in the economic health of the borough with a vote to approve the granting of liquor licenses in Swarthmore.
The chief argument in favor of a Yes vote on the ballot question is the potential for a more robust town center. Maybe access to liquor licenses will enable landlords to attract tenants who will create the bistros and quirky hangouts that some supporters idealize as components of the business district. But the most compelling commercial reason to vote yes is the strength of the town center’s largest business, the Swarthmore Co-op. The Co-op operates in a changing competitive landscape for food markets, where the relatively high profit margin generated by alcohol sales benefit those with liquor licenses. Certainly supermarket chains recognize the potential for growth in market share and in profits.
An April 23 Philadelphia Inquirer article described the efforts by paid solicitors of the Giant supermarket chain to obtain signatures on petitions to place referendum questions on the ballot in other “dry” suburban municipalities like East Bradford and Westtown townships. Here in Swarthmore, we didn’t see the Co-op’s fingerprints on the petitions, which were circulated by merchants and citizens in the group Swarthmore21.
In February, the Co-op board of directors early in February issued a statement indicating its support of the referendum, and asking its members to vote to approve the referendum. In it, the board plainly stated “The Co-op’s future success depends on our ability to adapt to this changing retail landscape … The Co-op will have a competitive advantage if it can sell beer and wine.” That’s been the extent of the store’s public messaging on the subject.
A second strong argument in favor of a Yes vote is an improvement in convenience. Beyond the potential for drinks with restaurant meals, having an in-town option for shoppers to pick up a quick six-pack or bottle of wine would be a considerable amenity for Swarthmore residents, including those who may not otherwise be Co-op shoppers.
Some opponents of the granting of liquor licenses suggest that a yes vote on the referendum opens the floodgates to erosion of tradition, of “what makes Swarthmore special,” as though the absence of temptation defines community. We contend that Swarthmore’s status as a special town doesn’t stem from its past so much as its future: its appeal to extraordinary people, who come to live here and contribute uncommon levels of energy, talent, and willingness to contribute to the well-being of the community. There is competition for these people, and Swarthmore hurts itself by making life here less convenient and appealing than Chestnut Hill, Wayne, Narberth, or Media. (These same people, by the way, might discover Swarthmore as visiting diners and shoppers in a more robust town center.)
Challenges await, of course, even if the referendum passes. Liquor licenses must be purchased from current holders in Delaware County. The available supply is scant, and the pricing — recently north of $200,000 — is a sobering barrier to entry for small restaurateurs, and even to a larger organization like the Co-op. Board chair Pam Bartholomew said “It’s not a slam dunk” for the Co-op to go ahead with alcohol sales, when other areas and systems of the store compete for its capital resources. “We are in the preliminary phase of figuring out both how beer and wine could be sold, and if we can afford to do it.”
Here’s hoping they get the chance. We believe a Yes vote on May 16 serves the vital interests of Swarthmore: an economically healthier, more comfortable town that provides amenities most residents will welcome.
Chris Reynolds, Editor
Don Delson, Publisher
Beth Gross, Publisher