Liquor license denial decried
A group of Foxborough residents plans to submit a petition to town selectmen Tuesday asking them to reconsider a vote to deny a liquor license for a boutique bowling franchise looking to open in Patriot Place.
But members of the group, who have been gathering signatures for two weeks in their "Take Back Our Town" initiative, say the petition is not really about bowling. They say it's about what they see as ongoing prejudice against The Kraft Group, which owns the upscale Route 1 mall, and any request the company has brought to the town.
The residents began their campaign following a 3-2 vote by selectmen on Nov. 5 to reject a proposal to transfer one of Patriot Place's 14 liquor licenses from the Dana-Farber Field House to Splitsville, which, with its sister bar and lounge, Howl at the Moon, seats about 700 people.
Loraine Brue, Virginia Coppola, and John Gray opposed the request, while James DeVellis and board chairman Mark Sullivan supported it.
Sullivan said he placed the issue on Tuesday's agenda to open a conversation in response to the public outcry that has deluged local newspapers and filled Facebook pages.
The residents say they were shocked when the license transfer was denied, and they were outraged when they learned that several selectmen met with the Kraft company on Oct. 31 and hinged their votes on a proposal for the firm to extend 10 years of $140,000 annual payments for public safety — struck when the mall opened in 2006 — into perpetuity.
"It basically was a request for ransom for an already possessed license to be transferred in the same area,'' said Mike Stewart, one of the group's organizers. He said that as of Wednesday, 604 residents had signed the petition asking selectmen to reverse their vote. He said the drive for more names would continue until Tuesday's meeting.
Selectmen have clashed continually with the organization headed by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in recent years, on matters ranging from a contentious and eventually failed effort to site a casino on Route 1, to funding for the local wastewater treatment plant, shared billboard revenue, and insurance liability at Gillette Stadium.
Sullivan said Kraft executives came to him with a proposal to pay the town a onetime fee of $125,000 for the license transfer, if they approved it, but it was never proposed on paper.
Then, Sullivan said, Brue and Coppola met with the company and suggested the new financial arrangement, but that was rejected, he said.
Kraft Group executives did not respond to a request for comment. But on Thursday, a spokeswoman for the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission confirmed that an appeal of the selectmen's decision has been filed in the matter by the Kraft company.
In a statement, Splitsville co-founder Mark Gibson said he is "extremely disappointed" in the selectmen's vote and is evaluating options. He said the application's denial "appears to be based on things unrelated to us."
Gibson said his company worked hard to provide a comprehensive application of a "world-class" venue for the town's consideration, and he believes every requirement needed for approval was satisfied.
In an interview, Brue said her vote was based solely on the belief that the franchise's highly charged atmosphere and focus on drinking doesn't fit in a community that is already vigilant about alcohol consumption.
Splitsville alone would be a good addition to Patriot Place, she said, even though the 12 planned lanes are half the capacity of most bowling alleys. It's Howl at the Moon, the accompanying bar and lounge, that's the deal-breaker, she said. "Alcohol sales would bring in the majority of the revenue, not meals or bowling," she said.
Bars and restaurants at Patriot Place can hold as many as 12,000 people, she said, and anyone convicted in court of operating under the influence of alcohol must tell the court where they had their last drink.
Stewart said it upset him that some selectmen ignored strong letters of support from the town's state legislative delegation; positive feedback from the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission; and even an OK from the town's police chief who, after traveling to tour the franchise's other locations, determined that his department could handle the newcomer if the Krafts paid to increase the mall's police presence.
Paul Farmer, another organizer, said some people were already up in arms about the treatment received by two other Patriot Place liquor license applications, Trader Joe's and Saga Restaurant.
"Both had unreasonable requests and restrictions placed on them that have not been asked of any other town liquor license applicants,'' Farmer said.
Former selectwoman Lynda Walsh said she and many others were surprised the majority of the select board did not support the Splitsville license. "Many folks feel that if they had known that the selectmen were going to vote in the negative, they would have attended the hearings to give their statements of support," she said.
Walsh said she has the utmost respect for Police Chief Ed O'Leary, "and if he doesn't see a public safety problem, I'm comfortable."
In March, as they rolled out their plans, Kraft officials and Patriot Place manager Brian Earley met with selectmen to quell fears about excessive alcohol consumption at mall establishments.
At the time, they said Patriot Place has not come close to seeing the number of police and medical calls projected in a fiscal impact report the town commissioned in 2006.
And although at least 1,200 police calls a year were estimated when the project was fully built out, the mall only saw 895 calls in 2012, of which just 251 resulted in custody or arrest, Earley said. He said mall management has worked with its 14 liquor licensees on training and compliance, and has also begun a New Year's Eve Safe Ride pilot program.
Tuesday's meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Foxborough High School media room.