MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Township officials have welcomed Cape May County’s plan to renovate an all-but-abandoned retail center near Routes 9 and 47.
But when county officials showed up at a Township Committee work session Monday to discuss their plans, they received an earful from another constituency — those holding licenses to sell alcohol in the township.
They believe a plan to sell alcohol at a new movie theater at the site will damage the value of their licenses.
Late last year, county freeholders approved buying the property for $5.75 million. The county plans to relocate several social services offices to the site, to be called the County Commons, along with state and federal services, including a veterans clinic. The proposal also calls for private businesses at the site, including Tractor Supply and Rent-A-Center.
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This month, freeholders approved a deal for an entertainment complex, to include the site of the former Rio Stadium 12, to be operated by Stone Harbor Theater LLC, the company that has renovated theaters in Stone Harbor and Northfield.
Plans call for a bowling alley, restaurant, bar and outdoor beer garden.
Several township liquor license holders attended the workshop meeting. Some expressed anger at the possibility of alcohol being sold on county property under a permit that will cost the theater group a fraction of what they paid for municipal licenses.
Alcohol licenses have been a hot issue in the township this year. The township has five consumption licenses and has seen enough population growth to allow for a sixth. But there were no takers when the township set a minimum bid at $750,000.
On Sept. 16, the Township Committee voted to drop the minimum bid to $600,000. Bids for that license are due Nov. 20.
In presenting the proposal to Township Committee, County Counsel Jeff Lindsay said the freeholders wanted to put in a bid on that license, but county officials were not willing to have the leaseholder own the license. He said the county is investing a lot of money in the project, and the ability to sell beer and wine at the theater is an important piece of it.
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“We wanted the tenant to be able to use a license that the county holds,” Lindsay said, but he had trouble figuring out a way to allow that. “In that research, I found what was called a concessionaire’s permit.”
The leaseholder would apply for the annual permit directly through the state division of Alcohol Beverage Control, at a cost of $2,400 each year.
Lindsay said such permits come with limitations. They must be on government property and, with the exception of waterfront bars in Atlantic City, cannot be on the beach. The permit holder cannot sell or move the permit. Alcohol may be consumed on site, but no package goods may be sold.
The county has not used the permits before, Lindsay said.
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“It’s going to take the value of my family business down,” said Richard Rutherford, whose parents opened Rio Station in 1986, the closest business with a liquor license to the former Rio Mall. “I think it’s hurting the local businesses that have been there through all of these storms.”
Rutherford cited the increase in breweries and wineries in the township, which he also sees as taking value from the five existing liquor licenses.
Louis Altobelli, who purchased Atkinson’s Tavern on Route 9 in 2015, got into a heated exchange with Lindsay, suggesting the township could be liable if someone drinking at the theater or restaurant is involved in an accident. He also questioned the bid process.
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Lindsay told committee members the county had been in contact with three potential operators for the theater, including two national chains, AMC Theatres and Paragon. But the companies wanted to negotiate a lease, rather than go through the bid process the county is required to follow. Only Stone Harbor Theater put in a bid.
Altobelli, who plans to reopen Atkinson’s as 9 South Bar and Restaurant, described the county bid process as shady at best.
“Shady at best how, sir?” responded Lindsay. “I get you’re upset. You have a liquor license. But you’re hurling insults and accusations about a shady process when we complied with the law.”
Lindsay said the lease agreement underwent a legal, competitive process. At one point, the two men were talking over each other, each getting progressively louder.
“I think you’re out of line. You can oppose it, but you can’t just throw that out there with no evidence,” Mayor Tim Donohue said.
Altobelli said the township has a responsibility to protect the rights of the current license holders.
“So that’s your real concern. You’re up here making accusations about shady processes. Your concern is to protect your liquor license,” Lindsay said.