A logo – a silhouette of the Swarthmore Borough central business district over a sunrise – has been popping up all around Swarthmore. It’s on the signs adorning the windows of businesses in the Ville, on the bright-orange baseball caps worn by volunteers outside of Hobbs and the Co-Op, and on the stickers that student volunteers are passing out at Sharples.
The logo represents Swarthmore21, a grassroots organization led by Swarthmore borough residents. Swarthmore21 seeks to put a referendum on a local primary election ballot that, if passed, would permit alcohol licenses in the borough. One-thousand registered voters would have to sign the petition by March 7th to put the referendum on the May 16th ballot. An identical referendum was rejected by a vote of 499-428 in 2011.
Swarthmore Borough is a “dry” municipality, and has been so since the early 1930s. Restaurants within borough lines are not permitted to obtain alcohol licenses, save for the Broad Table Tavern, which obtained its license through a 2001 referendum. Swarthmore is one of twelve municipalities in Delaware County and 684 municipalities statewide that have laws restricting the sale of alcohol.
Swarthmore21 organizers believe that going “wet” will make the Swarthmore business district more prosperous. “Lately there’s been a lot more vacant storefronts,” said long-time Ville resident and Swarthmore21 organizer Patrick Francher. He believes that alcohol licenses could bring new restaurants to town, which in turn would attract foot traffic and drive business development. Alcohol, Francher said, is fundamental in “helping small towns to survive.”
In the event that the referendum passes, up to two establishments in the borough, not including the Broad Table Tavern, would be able to obtain licences. These licenses must be purchased from a previous holder in a transaction overseen by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. To qualify for a license, an establishment must have a seating area that can accommodate at least thirty patrons, a requirement that effectively excludes bars from obtaining licenses.
Swarthmore21 hopes that one of these licenses will go to the Co-Op. The other could go to a new restaurant or to an existing restaurant. Hobbs owner Will Randall has expressed interest in obtaining a license, which he described as “huge” for business. He would like to either open a new burger restaurant or to expand Hobbs’ late-night offerings to include alcohol.
Not all business owners are enthusiastic about the referendum. Occasionally Yours owner Scott Richardson questions whether the referendum will help small businesses. He is concerned that large corporations will outbid small restaurants for licenses.
“You don’t know who those licenses will go to,” Richardson said. He also believes that there are insufficient properties in town to accommodate new restaurants.
Students who are registered to vote in Swarthmore may sign the petition and may vote in the primary. Considering Swarthmore Borough’s long history as a dry municipality, Richardson is resistant to student involvement with the referendum. “I do have an issue with someone who has been here for four years dictating the rest of the future of my community,” he said.
Borough resident Ben Berger, who is also an Associate Professor of Political Science, believes that students should be welcome to speak out on the referendum and to vote in the election, regardless of whether they intend to reside in the town after graduation. Though he respects Richardson’s position, Berger is adamant that students are “part of the town,” and should not be restricted from local politics.
According to Berger, there are many reasons why students might be interested in this referendum. In addition to the possibility of new food options in the Ville, students may choose to view the referendum as an ideological stand.
“On principle, I don’t like the idea of the government telling [citizens] whether they can do what’s already legal in the rest of the country,” said Berger. He believes that this position may appeal to some students.
Under the guidance of Swarthmore21, Swarthmore Democrats and Swarthmore Conservative Society are leading a joint on-campus signature effort. The clubs intend to obtain signatures by tabling outside Sharples and by holding a study break.
“It’s been going really great so far,” Swarthmore Democrats President Taylor Morgan ‘19 said. “A lot of people are really excited.”
For Morgan, the referendum is relevant to students because it is about “supporting the local community.” She emphasized that the referendum is a “non-partisan issue,” highlighting the positive response the referendum has elicited from borough residents of either party. Likewise, Morgan stressed that her club is still committed to national issues and to advocating for “groups that are on the forefront of issues,” even as they focus on local political matters.
At the moment, the question is whether there are enough voters who would want to see this referendum on the ballot. For Berger, this question ought to be non-controversial: “I would hope that people on any side […] would think that there’s no harm in getting people to talk about the issue.”
Disclaimer: Professor Ben Berger’s opinions in this article do not reflect the views of the college, but rather his views as a Swarthmore Borough resident