After years of talk, a bill that could significantly expand the number of restaurants that can sell beer, wine and spirits has finally gotten an initial vote in the Legislature.

The plan is likely to be altered as it moves ahead, and last week’s action by the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee was designed in part to compel more serious conversations about the long-discussed but long-delayed prospect of ending strict limits on liquor licenses that date to the end of Prohibition.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said individual municipalities would have to decide if they want the licenses and where they’d be allowed. They would cost up to $10,000 a year, depending on a restaurant’s size, and couldn’t be sold.

“There’s a significant portion of economy that is being held back because of these laws,” Burzichelli said.

Holders of existing liquor licenses, some which cost more than a half-million dollars, could be eligible for five years of tax credits if the license values go down, but James Talerico, the senior director of development for the Briad Restaurant Group, said the formula isn’t enough.

“If you are going to credit a company for expanding liquor licenses, there has to be a better way to reimburse the people that have invested so much money into those,” said Talerico, whose company is the nation’s largest T.G.I. Friday’s franchise operator.

Bob Wagner owns three liquor licenses as managing partner of Braddock’s Tavern and Ott’s Restaurants in South Jersey. He said the state ought to start by forcing inactive liquor licenses to be used, not pocketed – saying that’s 1,200 of the 9,000 in the state.

“I leveraged everything I had. And I leveraged the next house. And I leveraged and I got the other one,” Wagner said. “My retirement income is going to be my liquor license because I’ve been playing by the rules living in the state of New Jersey for 33 years.”

George Jacobs, government relations state chairman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said restaurants do better when grouped together and that he’s not convinced the value of current licenses would drop as feared.

“Public policy to get these shopping centers and even more importantly the downtowns vibrant and successful is more important than protecting a small monopoly,” Jacobs said.

Restaurant owner Gary Keating, of Jersey City, said the new licenses would help, not hurt, owners of existing licenses. He says he saw it happen in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Fort Greene neighborhoods.

“This would really help us, and it would help the community,” Keating said. “We would see a bunch of other businesses come in and give it a shot because they had a shot.”

The number of liquor licenses in each municipality is limited, in some cases making them very expensive and valuable.

Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, the 1st vice president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the limitations on plenary retail consumption licenses – one for every 3,000 residents – hurts revitalization efforts.

“We are seeing that the absence of liquor licenses has created a big challenge, an impediment really, for economic development in some of our communities,” Mahr said.

Michael McGuinness, chief executive officer of NAIOP New Jersey, said the change would bring new hope to towns aiming to attract businesses and, in turn, millennials as they begin families and move out of the cities.

“Those suburbs that have their act together and have nice, vibrant downtowns will do a good job of attracting them. And quite honestly, I think it’s those younger people that are needed,” McGuinness said.

Lawmakers are also moving other bills that could loosen New Jersey’s liquor laws in various ways, such as allowing licenses and sales in residential redevelopment areas, former military installations, historic taverns and farm markets.


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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