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New Providence Thinks It Needs a Drink

In 2012, borough residents might be able to buy a drink in a restaurant. Patch begins a four-part series that explores the history of how a dry town makes the decision to spike the punch.

Puritans founded the town known as Turkey in 1720 on the principles of hard work, kindness and humble temperance. Nearly 300 years later, New Providence remains nestled among the Watchung Mountains of Union County, harmoniously wrapped in friendly neighbors, highly regarded students, state-champion athletes, beautiful neighborhoods, wide open parks, and many Fortune 500 companies to support the tax base.

While homes and buildings may have changed with the times, the downtown shopping district contains a few retail stores, but is largely made up of service-driven and food-based businesses. With a few BYO restaurants and none with liquor licenses, low-key civic and business pride doesn’t depend on “spirits."  Until now, when for the first time in nearly 62 years, residents have decided that it’d be OK to frequent a local establishment — or four — specifically for the purpose of buying a drink with a meal.

Civic and business leaders have been weighing the merits of using liquor licenses to lure more “high-quality” restaurants to town while figuring out how to deal with no longer being a “dry” town. But residents tossed caution to the wind in November, supporting the Liquor Consumption Licenses Referendum, , to allow the sale of liquor licenses.

So in 2012, the Borough Council will begin an historic new era for New Providence that, when all said and done, could allow four liquor licenses to be sold to businesses. True to the town ethos, the council will keep an eye on just what goes on in their new gin joints.

For many, the change is a welcome one. Even if it comes in baby steps. Many local business owners agree attracting a fine-dining restaurant that can serve liquor by the glass would keep more residents in town for dinner, rather than traveling to restaurants in neighboring Berkeley Heights, Summit and Chatham. They also expect the change could attract nearby residents to New Providence and bring more businesses to town as a result of a more vibrant community and business climate. With the borough at a tipping point of change, Patch has researched the history of liquor licenses in town and will take you through a four-part series that explores New Providence then and now.

 

HISTORY OF NEW PROVIDENCE

The history of this Puritan town can be traced back to 1664. At that time, James, Duke of York, who was also the brother to King Charles II, purchased the land from the Lenni Lenape Indians.

In 1720, the Elizabethtown Associates established a Puritan colony in the area, according to documents found in the New Providence Historical Society. Because of the overabundance of wild turkeys in the area, the settlers came to know the area as “Turkey.”

By 1737, the Presbyterian Church was formed and became the center of this growing community. Leaders wanted to build a church that was befitting of its role as the center of the townspeople's lives. They set out to build a grand structure that could house its congregants. In 1759, the church balcony collapsed. The lack of serious injuries was declared by "divine providence," which led the church elders to come up with a new name for the town — New Providence.

More than a century later, Summit seceded from New Providence due to a disagreement with town management and its rapid increase in both population and business that occurred as a result of railroad facilities. Summit seceded from New Providence Township in 1869. In 1899, New Providence Borough formed.

 

PROGRESS

In the saloon days of the 1920s, a building called “Liberty Tavern” existed in New Providence that over time served several purposes, including a hotel, ice cream parlor and stationary store. Taverns and saloons were not regulated until about a decade later.

When the 21st amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted in the 1930s, it allowed each state to determine whether or not to allow alcoholic beverages and, if so, how to regulate them, according to the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s website.

“As soon as the amendment was adopted in 1933, New Jersey enacted its Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, which is known as Title 33,” according to the ABC’s website. “In that law, a Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was established under a Commissioner. In the late 1940s, after New Jersey’s 1947 Constitution was adopted, some departments were consolidated and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was absorbed into and became a division of the Department of Law and Public Safety under the New Jersey Attorney General.”

Stan Dunn, who co-owns in New Providence with Jim Gibbons, said his store was first opened in the 1940s by Mr. Alex Madonna and Mr. Frank Mae. He later purchased the store from Madonna and Mae in 1971. But the first liquor store in the borough was called “New Providence Liquors,” Dunn said, which also opened in the 1940s and was owned by the Mazzucco Family. 

According to the Revised Ordinance book published in 1960, found in the Historical Society, the original chapter of the Borough Code entitled “Alcoholic Beverages” was revised a number of times in the 1940s.

The first change allowing retail distribution licenses was revised on Oct. 19, 1942. The second change prohibiting retail consumption licenses — the same type of licenses New Providence may have if and when council does take formal action next year — was revised on Dec. 12, 1949.

Newspapers found at the Historical Society show The Summit Herald reported that Borough Council passed an ordinance at the Oct. 19, 1942 meeting to limit the number of retail distribution licenses for liquor to four. Further, a delegation of Summit and New Providence citizens “sought an amendment to the ordinance forbidding the retail sale of liquor on Sunday.”

“The sentiment of those seeking prohibition of Sunday sales was expressed by Mr. James Gross, who said a number of Summit drinkers had developed the habit of coming to the borough on Sunday and purchasing cheap beverages from one of the local licensees, following which they would make spectacles of themselves in public,” The Summit Herald article reported.

Borough Council didn’t act on the Sunday closing request since its then current licensees had purchased their licenses for a year that ended on June 30, 1943, but said they would re-examine the situation at a later date.

That ordinance was amended in 1943 and 1959, and at one point restricted the sale of liquor on Sundays. Liquor can be sold on Sundays in New Providence today.

While the ordinance has been revised a number of times since, a similar ordinance still exists today in the Borough Code under Chapter 109, entitled “Alcoholic Beverages.”

 

FOUR TIMES A CHARM

Aside from the referendum last month, many residents only recall a Liquor License referendum on the 1964 and 1978 election ballots. But the first referendum was actually brought before voters on another occasion.

In an article published on Sept. 29, 1964, Newark Evening News reported that residents rejected a Liquor License referendum around 1950, urging the issuance of consumption licenses, by a 2-1 margin. This was the first time the town had voted on such a referendum. Little did residents know it would be more than 60 years before such a law would pass.

In that same article, it was reported that a petition signed by 806 residents — 110 more than needed at that time— was received by the Borough Council and then mandated to direct the county clerk to place the Retail Consumption Licenses Referendum on the general election ballot. The question asked voters: “Shall the retail sale of all kind of alcoholic beverages for consumption on the licensed premises by the glass or other open receptacle, pursuant to Chapter 1 of the title “Intoxicating Liquors of the Revised Statutes, 33:1-1” be permitted in this municipality?”

James R. Morris, of Morris Realty Agency, and Carl E. Fischer, of the Fischer Garage, who created the referendum petition, told Newark Evening News that they were negotiating to lease space in the new center of town to a “quality type” restaurant, but felt that such a restaurant would need to serve alcoholic beverages with its meals. 

“‘There has been a large demand in this town for a good quality restaurant,’” Morris said in the article. “‘To get this type of restaurant the people say they want requires a liquor license. But this doesn’t mean that five bars will necessarily spring up in New Providence. If I thought this would be the case, I would vote against the referendum myself because I don’t want to see five bars in town any more than the other residents. However, I do feel that we should have a nice restaurant licensed to serve liquor, as many of the surrounding towns do.’”  

But Paul Mallery, chairman of the Citizens Committee on New Providence Bars, an organization that was formed to inform voters on the issues, told Newark Evening News that the passage of the referendum and approval to have consumption licenses in New Providence would, in effect, open up the borough to five bars without being able to offer any guarantee as to the type of bars that would be permitted.

“A ‘Yes’ vote would have allowed the borough the authority to grant up to five consumption licenses, permitting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in public establishments,” according to the article from 1964. “A ‘No’ vote would prohibit the issuing of consumption licenses, leaving untouched the borough’s present ban on them, which dates back to 1950.”

At that time, state law allowed consumption licenses to municipalities for every 2,000 residents and New Providence had around 10,000 residents during the referendum. The current state law today allows one license per 3,000 residents in New Jersey.

Another article published in the PRESS on Oct. 21, 1964 stated that the then Mayor Frank Farley and his Democratic Party running mates would vote “No” on the liquor license referendum.

Before the election, numerous letters to the editor were also submitted to area newspapers, most of which were in opposition of the referendum.

On Nov. 3, 1964, the referendum was voted down by 2,641 votes.

A similar vote on liquor licenses came up again 14 years later. An Aug. 10, 1978 article published in the Dispatch announced that a citizens’ group called “The New Providence Committee for Restaurant Beverage Service” was collecting signatures from residents that would be presented to council in early September, just in time for the referendum question to be placed on the 1978 general election ballot.

Members explained that New Providence is in a position to “sustain more restaurant of high quality. Such restaurants would not only be an asset to our economic life, but a service to many families and businessmen who would derive great benefit from them, without having to take their patronage to other communities.”

Members also emphasized that approval of the referendum would not place the community in a position where residents would have to accept and settle for conventional bars or taverns.

“The council would have that authority to issue licenses only at its discretion and would have the full power to confine the issuance of licenses to restaurants whose general quality and character measure up to a standard acceptable to this community,” members told the Dispatch.

The petition was submitted to the Borough Council in September of 1978, which mandated the question be placed on the ballot once again for voters to determine if there should be liquor consumption licenses allowed in New Providence.

But this referendum didn’t come without opposition.

An article printed in the Dispatch on Sept. 21, 1978 states that the New Providence Committee on Bars was on its third drive against public alcohol consumption in the borough.

Mallery, who was the chairman of the committee up until 1978, said those in support of the referendum were arguing that making it legal to have a drink with a meal would attract a nice restaurant to the borough. “But the borough already has two good restaurants — and Tarpley’s,” Mallery told the Dispatch.

Mallery also said once the referendum was passed, residents would lose complete control over the type of establishments that could come to the borough.

In the same article, which recapped the committee’s reactivation meeting, Mallery answered questions from concerned citizens. Resident Helen Conwell asked if a license would be transferable and Mallery said that a purchaser could pay, say $2,000, then could turn around and sell it for $100,000.

Other residents at the meeting suggested it was Nat Conti, owner of the Murray Hill Square, who was behind the referendum push because of real estate interests. Others suggested it would be the taxpayers footing the bill for any legal fees if council tried to limit liquor licenses to a “nice bar,” and would also foot the bill for more police protection.

In a Dispatch article published on Oct. 5, 1978, the pro-liquor referendum group, New Providence Committee for Restaurant Beverage Service, took issue with earlier claims that approval of the referendum would allow for resale of restaurant liquor licenses.

In a statement, committee members wrote:

“It has been suggested that the recipients of licenses could turn around and sell them to others who would bring undesirable establishments to New Providence. “It will be up to our council to establish the appropriate standards under which all restaurants receiving licenses would have to operate. In establishing these standards, our council will be required to give notice and to hold a full public hearing, in keeping with the requirements for adoption of a borough ordinance. This means that the question of what standards are best for our community will be fully discussed, in the open, before our council takes action. That action, therefore, is certain to be in keeping with the desires of the people of New Providence. Once high standards are established, all restaurants in our community would have to meet them, today, tomorrow and permanently, unless the standards are changed at some future time.”

In a Dispatch article published on Oct. 26, 1978, the same committee offered its definition of a “restaurant of quality” after a request from the opposition.

“It is a question which merits an answer, although we are confident that the great majority of residents in this community understand clearly what is meant by the term. We would offer this general definition: ‘A restaurant of quality is one which offers a dining experience, which generally would be recognized as gracious, and possibly elegant. It need not be highly expensive by today’s standards, but it would be representative of the quality of food, service and social surroundings, which the people of our community expect to find in their own homes. A restaurant of quality offers an atmosphere of grace, good food, courteous service, and friendliness, which makes it a pleasure for all who patronize it.’”

On the same day, the Citizens’ Committee Against New Providence Bars challenged the pro-bar committee’s statement that public liquor consumption in the borough would benefit the community economically.

Hugh B. Jordan, chairman of the committee, and Connie Cowan, treasurer, collectively wrote: “Bar service will certainly be of economic benefit—there is no doubt about that. But the beneficiaries will not be the people of New Providence. The beneficiaries will be the lucky holders of the bar licenses. One can paraphrase Winston Churchill: ‘Never have so many, risked so much, for the economic benefit of so few.'”

The statement urged voters to vote “No” to the referendum question in the 1978 election. That message continued during the week leading up to the election when the group urged voters, for the last time, to say “No" to the referendum question.

In a Nov. 2, 1978 Dispatch article, the group stated:

“They say that New Providence is the only ‘fine community in this area’ in which liquor is not sold by the glass. We say ‘good!’ We say, ‘we don’t think New Providence is disadvantaged just because you can’t buy a drink here.’ We say, ‘why run the very real risk of changing forever the character of New Providence?’ We say, ‘you know what New Providence is like today, but you have no way of knowing what it might be like if four bar licenses were issued.’”

On the same day, the pro-referendum group urged for voter approval.

Committee members wrote that at no point in the public discussion that "has occurred over this issue has the opposition raised a single, valid or specific piece of information which contradicts the contention that the law does, in fact, give our community the right to set our own standard for licensed restaurants, and to preserve that standard.”

Committee members said in the absence of such a reasonable argument, it would be hard to make a convincing case for opposition to the upcoming referendum, expect for a fear of bringing liquor to the borough.

“Considering the fact that liquor already is in our community in package stores and in most homes, as well as in all of the fine communities which surround us, such fear simply does not make sense," according to the statement. "We should not vote down the referendum out of some inspecific fear. We should allow good restaurants to serve drinks and permit each person the choice of whether or not to patronize them.”

Despite the best efforts of the pro-referendum group, voters downed the referendum — for the third time in 28 years — with 3,411 "No" votes and 1,001 "Yes" voters.

Although the campaign for and against the question did not reach the emotional pitch that it did in 1964, according to a Dispatch article published on Nov. 9, 1978, “the general feeling once the referendum became a reality that sentiment had not changed that much in 14 years and there was little chance of its success.

Thirty-three years later, the referendum question was brought before New Providence voters again. On Aug. 3, regarding the sale of alcohol consumption licenses were submitted to Borough Clerk Wendi Barry by Gary Kapner, former president of the New Providence Business and Professional Association, who helped start the petition.

The number of signatures collected far exceeded the 653 that were needed. Borough Administrator Douglas Marvin said that number is based on a percentage of New Providence residents who voted in the last general assembly election, which was two years prior at that time.

In August, Marvin said the next step in the process was for the council to prepare a resolution. From there, a referendum was sent to the county clerk's office and placed on the November ballot for voters to consider.

To relay the facts and address any concerns from the community, the borough regarding the Liquor Consumption Licenses Referendum question, with a panel consisting of Borough Attorney Carl Woodward, Councilman Rob Munoz and Deputy Police Chief Scott Torre. Panelists answered questions from residents that were posed by two moderators. Questions ranged from the type of establishments that could be sold a license and what the restrictions would be on those establishments to if additional police would be needed and how the bidding process for liquor licenses would be handled.

On Nov. 8, 2011, four times was the charm for .

At the Nov. 28 council meeting, Mayor J. Brooke Hern said it is the council’s intent to be very careful and deliberate about how they proceed from here.

“This is the biggest change [this town] has ever seen I think. Probably the biggest change since Springfield Avenue was paved for the first time,” Hern said. “We want to make sure it works out to really strengthen our community, strengthen our business district and that we carefully consider all of the potential benefits and all of the potential pitfalls, and incorporate not only the zoning ordinance but this liquor license ordinance, and we do it in a very careful and thoughtful way.”

With the favorable nod from residents, the borough of New Providence is entitled to four licenses based on its population of more than 12,000 residents. Still, even though voters have given the go-ahead, borough council will have to approve ordinances allowing the sale of liquor licenses before businesses can bid for one. Meetings to discuss such a change would not occur until January at the earliest.

Zach Hosseini, spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverages Control, said there are currently 5,634 Plenary Retail Consumption Licenses, 472 additional that include a “Broad Package Privilege,” for a total of 6,106 licenses that are active throughout the State of New Jersey.

So what will this mean for our business districts and our community overall? Be sure to check back tomorrow to hear from the business owners in New Providence.

katherine bilman December 19, 2011 at 10:49 PM
Wow - another "Who Knew"

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