Zamir Kociaj opened a small Italian restaurant, Firenze Trattoria, in downtown Salem last year but waited more than four months for the Legislature’s permission to serve beer and wine.
A Prohibition-era cap on the number of Massachusetts liquor licenses — based on the population of a community according to the most recent U.S. census — means cities and towns often don’t have enough to offer would-be restaurant, nightclub or bar owners.
That leaves restaurateurs like Kociaj with two options: buy a license from someone else at a premium, with prices running from $15,000 to $300,000, or get the city to request a special act of the Legislature, which costs a few hundred dollars but takes months.
Kociaj said there was nothing for sale in Salem, so he had no choice.
“We had to go the entire winter without being able to serve alcohol,” said Kociaj. “It was difficult. We lost a lot of business because of that.”
Municipal officials want more control over licenses, arguing that the quota is archaic and stifles growth in commercial districts that are just starting to rebound from the recession. So far, the perennial effort to change the rules hasn’t gained much traction, leaving control over the licenses to state lawmakers.
“We’ve done a lot of work to revitalize our business district, and not being able to offer a liquor license can make the difference between someone wanting to invest in your city or not,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. “We have the ability to regulate this ourselves, but the state won’t allow it.”
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, agrees it’s time to cede more control to local licensing boards.
“If local governments are coming to us regularly to create exceptions to the law, and we’re granting them, then clearly the current rules are not working,” he said.