BERLIN — Resident fears that adding beer and wine sales to an East Berlin convenience store could re-ignite old criminal concerns were enough to convince the Board of License Commissioners (BLC) this week to deny the operator’s application.
The Berlin Food Mart is located at the intersection of Flower Street and Route 113 and is better known as Uncle Willie’s. Though none of the residents who spoke had any criticism for how the store operated presently, they were united in their fear that bringing alcohol to the troubled corner could re-ignite old issues like loitering and drug use.
Resident Dianna Purnell told the BLC Wednesday that she aggressively opposes extending a beer and wine license to Uncle Willie’s. The corner it sits on has been a hotspot for drug activity and other social woes for decades, she asserted, and has only begun to heal over the past few years. Making alcohol available there could unravel much of those good efforts, she warned.
“Right now we’re halfway, maybe more than halfway, to making it safe there. To put alcohol right in the mouth of where we still have people that are willing to compromise themselves and buy alcohol for young people, not only alcohol but if they’re buying alcohol somewhere along the line somebody has got some drugs back there. And we’re going to compromise our kids? No, I don’t want this,” she said.
There has been a “major drug problem in Berlin, on Flower Street” for some, she continued. According to Purnell, a lot of that has been combated in the last decade by a united effort from the town and residents.
“[Former State’s Attorney] Joel Todd, [Berlin Police Chief] Arnold Downing worked to clean up that community,” said Purnell.
Attorney Pete Cosby, who represented the owners of Uncle Willie’s, agreed with Purnell but argued that because the corner has been so improved adding alcohol will not create issues.
“That has been fixed. That community has been fixed,” he said.
The statement was met with a rumble of disagreement from the residents in the audience.
“That problem has not been fixed. That problem, at the minimum, has just sort of gone underground just a little bit,” said Purnell.
Cosby stuck to his reasoning, however, and presented Uncle Willie’s as a benefit to the area that has operated responsibly and helped improve the area around it. Adding beer and wine to the store would also “serve a community need,” he told the BLC, by providing alcohol within walking distance for the nearby neighborhood as well as for campers headed to Assateague.
To illustrate the need, Uncle Willie’s submitted a petition that had been signed by residents endorsing the license. A counter petition was submitted by those who opposed it.
Resident Gabe Purnell took issue with the way Uncle Willie’s was being portrayed, as he thought it was taking too much credit for cleaning up their corner. It’s been those who live and work in the neighborhood, charged Gabe Purnell, who have made that progress and now those same people are afraid the addition of alcohol could hamstring that work.
“My heart has been that community,” said an energized Gabe Purnell.
Cosby clarified that his clients aren’t claiming to have carried the whole burden of revitalization, but do feel they have helped.
“My clients don’t mean to say they’ve fixed this neighborhood. You’ve fixed this neighborhood; that’s right. But my clients have contributed to fixing this neighborhood by being good stewards of this business,” he said.
Residents continued to make the assertion that the problem has only burned to a simmer, not been extinguished, and bringing in alcohol would be like throwing gasoline on the fire.
“The building itself has been cleaned up, it’s not an eyesore there,” said Dr. Roxy Dennis. “But as far as the problem going away that is on that corner, it has not gone away.”
Dennis spoke on behalf of the local branch of the NAACP, which opposes the beer and wine application.
Resident Mary O’Neil summed up most of the statements by telling the board that the store has operated responsibly but that’s no reason to risk bringing alcohol into the neighborhood.
“I have nothing bad to say about the store but you can’t legislate morality,” she said.
This is not the first time that Uncle Willie’s has expressed an interest in a beer and wine license, which they looked into when they first opened several years ago. Nothing came of that, however, and Cosby said that his clients were hopeful that enough time has passed and enough progress been made to finally get them a license. The BLC did not believe so.
“They’ve been through hell on that corner,” BLC Chair William Esham told Cosby.
Esham pointed out there were half a dozen or so places within a mile that already offered carry-out beer and wine. The board voted to reject the application, citing that the need in the community had already been met and that residents opposed the expansion.