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Historically dry Pitman looks to sell its first liquor license, but some say the price is too high

In a historic November, 2016 referendum, residents of Pitman, NJ, which has been a dry community since its 1871 founding by Methodist ministers, voted two to one in favor of authorizing the sale of liquor licenses. Nearly two years later, not one has been sold.

The sign on the Pitman municipal building on South Broadway St.
The sign on the Pitman municipal building on South Broadway St. Read moreWill Feuer

The Women's Christian Temperance Union fountain shares the entrance to Promise Park with a memorial to the couple of dozen fighters from the town who served in World War I. Across the street is historic Pitman Grove, where the town's Methodist founders established the town of Pitman at a camp meeting in 1871. Long-broken pay phones dot the downtown area, and the avenues to the Grove squeeze between lopsided picket fences with chipped paint.

Some things in town may never change, but much already has, including the once strictly prohibitionist stance on alcohol. A decade ago, when Pitman had significantly more vacant buildings and fewer businesses, the town voted by 2-1 against issuing liquor licenses. Since then, the  celebrated yet decrepit Broadway Theater was renovated, bringing in strong weekend crowds and young entrepreneurs to serve them.

Today, Pitman's hobby shops, board-game stores, and classical diners fight for space with a new wave of entrepreneurs serving  craft beer, artisanal coffee, and foods that Pitman's founders never heard of, like Thai-inspired burgers. Seeking to keep the new activity going,  Pitman again put alcohol to a vote in November 2016. This time, the vote was 2-1 in favor.

The reopening of the Broadway 10 years ago, according to owner Peter Slack, attracted a few high-end restaurants downtown,  followed by some millennial-owned enterprises like Broadway Bakery and the 0 Zone rolled ice cream parlor. Even just one liquor-licensed establishment in town, Slack hopes, will bring a fresh crowd to stroll South Broadway and spend money between drinks.

"We're all here trying to bring back the downtown area, and the idea with the liquor license was to help along revitalizing that area," Slack said. "There is no reason somebody shouldn't be able to get a cocktail in Pitman."

The borough has two microbreweries, which operate without liquor licenses and thus must close by 10 p.m. An establishment with a liquor license could remain open until 2 a.m. and serve beer, wine, and liquor.

"A place like that would be a burst of energy for this town," Slack said. "People would have somewhere to go after shows at the theater."

But nearly two years after the referendum, the Borough Council has failed to secure a bid on the license, which, to the chagrin of local restaurant owners, has a minimum price of $550,000.

Mayor Russell Johnson said he is eager to open up a Pitman watering hole, not only to keep residents and dollars in town, but also to attract visitors and keep them there longer. He says there's nothing for visitors to do late at night, which means the town is losing business.

"The theater draws a restaurant crowd. What it doesn't draw is the after crowd, because everything here is closed by 10:30, 11, so there's nothing here and they have nowhere to go," he said. Selling the liquor license "could help keep our tax rate low, and I hope it will give a huge jolt to the economy of Pitman."

But Johnson, who has served as mayor for seven years, said the council will take its time to find a high bidder rather than rushing to take the first offer. The sale is a potentially massive source of revenue for the town of roughly 9,000 and Johnson says it's only selling one license for now, though by law it can sell up to three.

"We decided we would rather go high with the price and take our time finding a bidder, rather than go low," Johnson said.

Councilwoman Amy Rudley added that the council was obligated "to get a fair price for the taxpayer. You can always come lower, but you can't go higher."

Not everyone is impressed by the council's patience, including the owner of one of the only two restaurants in Pitman that meets the requirement of a 75-seat capacity to place a bid.

"No one is going to give them $550,000 in this little podunk town. This isn't funny anymore," said Anthony Asbury, who owns Sweet Lula's, named after his wife, and Coco's Cocino, named after his daughter. Both are BYOB. "This town has to work in harmony. After these theater shows now, people just go home, because it's dark. Can't we do better?"

If he  purchased the license, Asbury said, he would have to install a bar and buy liquor-license insurance, making the license even less affordable. While the 2016 referendum empowered but did not require the council to award a liquor license, Asbury believes it has an obligation to do so at a reasonable price because the move stands to benefit all of Pitman.

"The vote was two years ago, and we still don't have a liquor license. How long does it take for [the council] to do what we ask?" Asbury asked.  "This tide will lift all boats."

John Fitzpatrick, a CPA who serves on Pitman's economic development committee, which is independent from but works with the Borough Council, said that the council looked to surrounding towns that they believed were comparable.

Richwood "sold four [liquor licenses] at $700,000, so I think council was looking at that, but that would be a chain restaurant, like a Cheesecake Factory," he said. "I don't think downtown Pitman could afford all that. I think $250 to $350 [thousand] will probably get somebody."

Meanwhile, residents like Kevin Reardon, 27, and Laurel Brown, 22, have to drive outside the borough, where there are several nearby bars to grab a drink.

"Everyone goes to Carolina Blue on Lambs Road. A lot of people even think it's in Pitman," Brown said as her dog, Moose, licked ice cream off her spoon.

Reardon said he hopes to eventually get a drink in Pitman. "It would be great for the town," he said. "But they have to make it reasonable for a small business here."