Since 2002, at least six of New Jersey’s “dry” towns have voted to permit the sale of alcohol, reducing the remaining number to 38. The latest convert was Stratford, a Camden County borough of about 7,000, where voters last November approved a licensing referendum by a 2-to-1 margin.
“We’re hoping it brings in new business and spurs some development in needed areas,” says Stratford Borough Clerk John Keenan, who cited a massive public-education campaign as the reason voters approved the switch, which they had rejected in 2002.
Most towns that drop dry are thirsting for revenue. More than two-thirds of currently dry hamlets have less than 5,000 residents and little chance to attract development. Tax revenue from restaurants and liquor stores helps the bottom line, but even more enticing is the windfall from auctioning off a brand-new license. State law allows a town to create one on-premise consumption license (for restaurants and bars) per 3,000 residents and one distribution license (for liquor stores) per 7,500 residents. Proceeds from the initial sale go to the town. Subsequent transfers are between buyer and seller. Towns with existing licenses can add another, reaping the one-time benefit, only if their population grows by a sufficient number of residents.
For some, money takes a back seat to religion, fear of crime, and loss of historical identity. About 60 percent of voters in Moorestown and Pitman rejected “wet” referendums in November. “People here were imagining doors opening on seven bars and people stumbling out in front of their baby strollers,” says Pitman Administrator Dawn Human, who believes some voters let fears override the facts. “To be fair, part of the population just didn’t want change. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”