Damascus business owners predict little change if alcohol referendum is approved

August 21, 2012

Supporters of a voter referendum in Damascus to allow beer and wine sales in restaurants say it will bring new restaurants to town and spur further growth in the area.

“It will absolutely help to revitalize [the] town,” said Jay Traverso, one of the people leading the effort to get the referendum passed. “It will keep people in town — my wife and I will stop driving to Frederick to go to a restaurant.”

Earlier this spring, the General Assembly passed a bill calling for a vote in Damascus on whether or not local restaurants should be able to sell beer and light wine. The referendum will be on the ballot in Damascus this November.

A similar bill to allow the sale of alcohol in Damascus — the last dry town in the state — passed the General Assembly and was signed by the governor in 1996, but was defeated in a referendum vote.

In November, the town’s 8,590 registered voters again will be asked to vote on the issue.


Todd Houser, manager at Crabby John's in Damascus, said a new law to allow restaurants to serve beer and wine while patrons are seated would not affect his small take-out seafood restaurant. (Brian Lewis/The Gazette)

Traverso said restaurant owners are hesitant to locate in an area that doesn’t allow beer and wine sales, and passing the referendum will encourage more small restaurants to open up in town.

“We don’t want to see bars, we don’t want to see liquor stores,” he said. “We want to see a couple — that’s all it will take — a couple of small restaurants.”

Even if the referendum passes, however, some restaurant owners say it won’t change much about how they do business. Tina Kiima, owner of New York J&P Pizza in Damascus, said she doesn’t think changing the law would help her business, in part, because of the cost of adding beer and wine to the menu.

“We can’t really afford much right now,” she said.

Todd Houser manages Crabby John’s, a small takeout seafood restaurant downtown. The new law only would allow restaurants to serve beer and wine while patrons are seated, so takeout restaurants such as Crabby John’s still would be unable to sell alcohol.

“Now, if you could buy it and take it with you to go, I’d be set up good, then,” Houser said, laughing.

Regardless of whether or not voters approve the referendum, Houser is skeptical that Damascus will see a slew of new restaurants opening up.

“People keep talking about a big food establishment coming in here, [but] I don’t know where they’d put one,” he said. “Even if they get beer, I don’t see anything big coming to this town. There’s just limited space here.”

Traverso agrees with Houser that even with the referendum, large, sit-down restaurant chains are unlikely to locate in an area with a small population such as Damascus, and that’s okay with him.

“Damascus is not large enough demographically to support a Chili’s, an Applebee’s, a Red Robin — it’ll never happen.” Traverso said. Those types of restaurant chains generally operate full bars, which the new law would not allow. However, Traverso said allowing beer and wine sales will bring smaller restaurants into the area.

“You bring in a couple small places, people will come into them. And they are dying to come in here,” he said, although he wouldn’t list any of the restaurants by name. He said those who oppose the referendum might put pressure on restaurant owners who openly support it.

Bunny Galladora, state president for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and a retired deputy sheriff, said being dry is part of the uniqueness of the town. She said her organization has campaigned against similar referendums in Damascus.

“I know of at least two times that it’s gone to the voters, and they have voted to keep alcohol out,” she said. “Of course, with these new housing developments coming in and everything, it’s going to be harder to educate [voters] because there’s more people there.”

Galladora, a former resident of Damascus, said that although she thinks most of the people in Damascus want it to remain a dry town, bringing up the issue again divides the close-knit community.

Until the November vote, Traverso said he and other supporters will advertise and attend community meetings to try to sway residents. Traverso said the area has grown significantly and changed demographically since the town voted down the most recent similar referendum in 1996.

“The big issue is just explaining to people what it does and what it doesn’t do,” he said.

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