BERLIN — Though split votes over the presence of alcohol at certain town events have been common recently, the Berlin Council was unanimous Tuesday in agreeing to relax Berlin’s open container law at six events for next year and approve an application by the Chamber of Commerce to sell beer and wine at five of those events.
The six events listed were the Jazz and Blues Festival, the Fiddlers Convention, May Day Play Day, Octoberfest, New Year’s Eve and the new International Food and Music Festival. Of the six, the chamber sponsors Jazz and Blues and Fiddlers, which are both free to the public. Allowing them to sell alcohol at all of the occasions listed except for New Year’s Eve will help the chamber recoup costs and allow them to keep providing free events.
“People do not realize the expense for the chamber behind these events,” said Councilwoman Lisa Hall. “In this economy, it’s very hard for them to get the money.”
However, Hall acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room, allowing the chamber to operate as an alcohol vendor during events will put them in competition with Berlin’s private businesses.
“It’s very hard for the chamber to be creative in raising the money to support these events to keep them free, and I kind of have a catch-22,” Hall said. “I really don’t like seeing the chamber competing with my businesses in town, but, on the other hand, we need the chamber to continue to support and promote these events, and I understand that the chamber is just using these bars or beer buying stations, beer gardens, whatever, to support and to offset the expenses of these events, correct?”
Berlin Economic and Community Development Director Michael Day told Hall that she was correct. There is a concern amongst area businesses that the chamber could draw away customers during the events, admitted Day, but the chamber is hard at work to allay those fears.
“There is another conversation going on behind the scenes with the establishments that sell alcohol to try and work through some of these issues. We know that the chamber’s competing,” he said. “We don’t want to compete.”
Hall’s remark about chamber alcohol sales being useful for funding the organization so it can continue to host events that bring all businesses in town new customers is the basis of the chamber’s case, explained Day. However, the town is also looking at other forms of compensation to make up for any sales the chamber might cost private businesses. For example, Town Administrator Tony Carson told the council that local establishments are being given first dibs to be food vendors at the events.
“I know in the first three years we had food vendors from outside of the area because, quite frankly, none of our existing businesses wanted to take that chance,” Carson said. “Now we’ve talked to the chamber on their events and on the town’s events and we’re going to all the existing businesses and giving them the first right if they want to be a food vendor. They will have that ability to sell and we won’t be bringing in outside vendors if we get the businesses.”
That same option to be a food vendor should also be given to area non-profits, suggested Councilman Elroy Brittingham.
“I think you should also go to the non-profit organizations because in the past they have stepped up to the plate, some of them have,” he said.
Day agreed and said that the town has been proactive recently in seeking partnerships among area non-profits.
Another point where the town is trying to compensate area businesses, said Aaren Collins, executive director for the chamber, is with the type of beer that they would serve at events. While some of the brews will be big-name domestics, local craft beer will also be featured at chamber stands.
“We mostly use Burley Oak for most of our events and then we’ll put a domestic beer in there,” she said.
Despite the town’s positive overall track record with alcohol at events, a few councilmembers did mention lingering discomfort with promoting drinking at the festivals. Regarding the International Food and Music Festival, which will debut this year in June, Councilwoman Paula Lynch asked Day if another event, specifically one that features alcohol, is necessary.
“We need an event every weekend apparently,” said Day. “We don’t need it but there has been a cry for something else, another event.”
Day reminded the council that the last major event to feature alcohol, the New Year’s Eve ball drop, went gone off without a hitch.
“The police had no issues whatsoever … From the police point of view, it was boring,” he said. “But not from everybody else’s point of view. For that crowd, it was well-behaved.”
The council voted 5-0 on both motions to allow a special exemption for drinking at the six events in 2013 within defined limits as well as in approval of the chamber’s application. The chamber will now need to secure a permit from the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners to sell beer and wine.