By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Bedford Chamber of Commerce representatives Adam Schwartz and Karen Kenney addressed the Selectmen on June 3 to ask for consideration in three matters:
- A review of the Town's restaurant alcohol policy, which currently requires that a full meal be ordered before an alcoholic beverage can be requested;
- A one-day pilot to allow businesses to erect free-standing, sandwich board-type signs to advertise, a practice now prohibited for anything other than non-profit groups;
- Organizing a casual open house-style meeting between Town employees and business owners so that better mutual understanding and working relationships can be established.
Schwartz said that these requests came by way of discussions between the Chamber and its member businesses as well as, in the case of the alcohol policy, from customer feedback.
With respect to the alcohol policy, Schwartz emphasized that the Chamber was not trying to "make Bedford into a big drinking area."
"From some of the town residents [and business people], the feedback we get is that, 'We'd like to grab a drink and maybe an appetizer after work before heading home for dinner," Schwartz said. "Or, from people who play sports or their kids play sports: they want to grab a beer and some chicken wings after a game but they end up having to leave Bedford and go to Burlington [to get what they want without ordering a whole meal].
"We have some great restaurants in Bedford and we want to help them out. We also want to make Bedford's policy consistent with other towns' policies and put Bedford on [a] par with the standard for the area," Schwartz said.
Town Manager Rick Reed provided additional information from inquiries he has made into neighboring towns' policies.
"I have done some research on this because I've heard these concerns [in the past]," Reed said. "The language is different in each community and a careful study could, perhaps, yield some ideas about how ours is worded. . . . Each community has flexibility to set their regulations how they would like them to be.
"Maybe we do want to change-that's something the Selectmen as the licensing authority would want to consider," Reed continued. "What we do today is a long-standing practice that existed more than 25 years ago and was just put down into writing about 13 or 14 years ago. [Before it was written down,] every time a licensee came in to the Selectmen requesting a license, tradition made it was clear that the license was only for alcoholic beverage with food service."
"I'm sympathetic to the issue," Selectmen Mike Rosenberg said to Schwartz, "but I wouldn't want to address that without a thorough opportunity for everybody to comment-it's very sensitive and [has] a lot of implications."
To look more deeply into the issue, a subcommittee of two Selectmen-Margot Fleischman and Mark Siegenthaler-was formed. The Selectmen also agreed that, before the policy could be changed, citizens would be given adequate opportunity to speak on the matter.
The Chamber's request for a one-day, date-specific, free-standing sign trial run was also considered. Sign Bylaw Review Committee Chair Jeff Cohen distributed a draft of a bylaw revision proposal, postponed from Annual Town Meeting that, he said, could guide the special permit experiment.
"This is under discussion by the Committee, but we just thought it was too big to add to this year's spring Town Meeting. This whole trial period [that the Chamber is talking about] is part of what we'd like to see moving into the fall Town Meeting. It would be great if we could do trials sooner rather than later because it would help the residents be more informed [about what we're proposing] by the time they have to vote on it," Cohen reasoned.
Selectman Mark Siegenthaler-the liaison to the Sign Bylaw Review Committee-spoke about the group's concerns with regard to free-standing commercial signs saying, "The fear in this is that we say businesses [in designated areas] can do it, and when we all get up that day it's like mushrooms-they're all over the landscape. And then everyone says, 'This is not what we want Bedford to look like.'"
Selectman Margot Fleischman expressed concern that having only one day when the experiment is attempted could give a false impression of how the town would look if free-standing commercial signs were allowed all the time. "Concentrating them all on one day actually gives somewhat of an unfair picture of what it might look like in the future, if we're overwhelmed with them because it's just one, special day."
Selectman Caroline Fedele proposed that before the Town agrees to any such experiment, there should be an understanding of what constitutes "success." "There's so much gray area-we just have to have some clear expectations about what success is," Fedele said.
"I think we should just try it, just to see what happens," said Chamber representative Kenney. "We really don't know how much more business it's going to bring. We really don't know if it would be a safety issue. I don't want it to be a free-for-all, but I do think we should try and see if we can help. . . . We need to help our businesses, [especially with all the competition coming soon from the Wegman's development in Burlington.]"
Kenney added that, of the businesses that responded to the Chamber's inquiry, only about 50% said they would make use of special permission to erect a free-standing sign.
The Selectmen agree to take up the issue again at their meeting on June 17, targeting Friday, July 5, as the date for the potential pilot, although alternate dates could be included in the discussion.
The third request from the Chamber- for an open-house, social-style meeting between businesses and Town employees-was based on feedback about the need to develop greater familiarity and understanding between business owners and the Town.
"We get mixed feedback on how it is doing business in Bedford," Schwartz said. "Some businesses say it's really tough; other businesses say it's great. We've been trying to figure out why it's different [for some than for others.] What we've seen is that knowledge seems to be the deciding factor: the more involved the businesses are in the town, the more positive the experience is."
After general discussion, Selectmen Chair Bill Moonan said, "I think you're hearing support for the concept of improving communications and what we need to think about is how that is best done."
Selectman Mike Rosenberg suggested that it might be best to wait for the new part-time Economic Development Officer to be on board before moving ahead with this particular initiative.