RI’s last dry town getting first 2 liquor stores

Posted Dec. 18, 2011, at 8:29 p.m.

BARRINGTON, R.I. — The last dry town in Rhode Island — and one of the last in New England — is poised to get not one, but two liquor stores in the coming months in what has shaped up to be a battle between a pair of local would-be businessmen.

The Barrington Town Council granted the first liquor store license to Matthew Amaral in November, a year after voters passed a referendum allowing them. The 36-year-old insurance broker has presented plans for a boutique store with custom-made wooden wine racks, “wine lockers” and a touchscreen computer station where customers can research which red goes with which main course. He hopes to open Grapes & Grains on his birthday in March.

But the race to make history in town seems likely to be won by Giovanni Cicione, who was awarded a license himself this month. The attorney, who appealed to the state after the council initially didn’t approve a second application because of a disagreement over location, is speeding to open his store before Christmas. He calls Brickyard Wine & Spirits a “little more middle-market” and “more Barrington-y.”

Either way, a town that has never had a package store soon will have two — within about a half-mile.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Amaral from inside a space just off Barrington’s main thoroughfare that he is transforming into a 2,400-square-foot shop.

“On my license, it says No. 1, and it has a gold seal, and it feels like, ‘Look, Mom, I finally got my gold star,”’ he said.

Said Cicione, a former Rhode Island GOP chairman, of the competing businesses: “Everyone would of course prefer monopoly, but I think what the Town Council did was the right thing.”

Barrington — a wealthy waterfront community that once made the Top 10 in CNN/Money’s list of best places to live — hasn’t really been dry for years. In 1992, voters approved allowing private clubs and restaurants to serve alcohol. But the same year, residents responded with a resounding no when asked whether liquor stores should be permitted.

A few years ago, Amaral decided he wanted to open one and sought to have the local ordinance changed. He and his wife lobbied residents for months before the 2010 referendum, handing out hundreds of postcards in the parking lot of Shaw’s grocery store, across from where Grapes & Grains will be located. Times had changed. The ballot question passed, 58 to 42 percent.

Councilwoman Kate Weymouth, who supports just one liquor store, says the council has been under enormous pressure, facing potential appeals and even lawsuits, every step of the way since then. It had to determine what criteria to use for awarding licenses, and to whom they should be granted. Given several high-profile alcohol-related deaths involving teens in Barrington in recent years, the council reinforced a requirement for an alcohol training course for everyone who serves or sells alcohol and asked the liquor stores to implement plans to deter underage sales.

Still, Weymouth thinks two liquor stores in Barrington is too many.

“Let’s do it slowly,” she said.

While there are hundreds of dry cities, towns and counties remaining in the U.S., few are in New England. Bridgewater is the last dry town in Connecticut. Several years ago, Rockport, Mass., voted to allow restaurants to serve alcohol, but liquor stores are not permitted, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, says the switch from dry to wet is on the rise. In Texas, for instance, 450 of the 576 locales that held elections on giving up their dry status since 2004 approved taking that step.

No one seems to think the addition of a liquor store — even two — will change anything fundamental about Barrington. For one, local ordinances prevent the types of neon signs seen at a package store in Providence.

“The Barrington downtown has a certain look, and you try to get businesses to keep with that certain look,” said Town Council President June Speakman.

Amaral, for his part, says garish Bud Light advertisements in his windows “wouldn’t go with my custom wood blinds.”

What’s more, liquor stores already exist on the edge of town, in East Providence and Warren.

“The dry aspect has gone away gradually, and that’s a nice way to make policy, step by step,” Speakman said. “To me, you either drive four minutes to get your bottle of wine or three minutes to get your bottle of wine. I don’t believe it will change the character of the town at all.”

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