Opinion: The Booze Battle and the Library Letdown
The wheels of government move very slowly—or not at all.
Another slow news day found Mo’town’s booze issues on the front page of the Inky! That’s right, folks! On the front page of last Wednesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer was a story about liquor and the next-to-the-mall merchants who want it badly enough to file a lawsuit. I was startled out of my heat-induced torpor the week before to see a story about wild turkeys in Hainesport, also on the front page of our once venerable Philadelphia newspaper. I get lawsuits are newsworthy, especially in light of Mo’town’s reputation of being a dry and very staid community. But wild turkeys? Only if we’re drinking Wild Turkey at a fine dining establishment at the mall!
The liquor license battle continues, with East Gate Square jonesing for a liquor license of its own. They want to turn Friendly’s on Nixon Drive into a full-service restaurant, but what would they call it? Friendly and Boozy? No more “happy ending sundaes” for the kiddies, but plenty of happy ending Sundays for the imbibers.
I was present at one of the town council meetings when someone from the peanut gallery asked about the legality of only allowing alcohol to be sold at an unnamed indoor shopping mall off Route 38. Mo’town solicitor Thomas Coleman shot down the questioner without going into detail. Someone then explained spot zoning to me: the abuse of zoning laws to benefit one property owner over another. I had to admit part two of the liquor referendum did seem to be a textbook case of spot zoning.
This issue is so tiresome because the so-called “unnamed” indoor shopping mall—also known as the Moorestown Mall—is SURROUNDED by booze. Let’s use our fingers, boys and girls, and count the many full-service establishments close to the unnamed mall: P.J. Whelihan’s, Tacconelli’s, Mikado, Bertucci’s, and Don Pablo’s. Can we also throw Yokohama in there because it’s my fave for great sushi and the occasional Kirin beer? So as the summer heat continues to reduce us to unattractive puddles of perspiration, we are all waiting on the edges of our beach chairs to see what exactly the liquor licenses will do to revive our town.
If you don’t know by now, nothing happens immediately in Mo’town, or any other town. Before any project gets started, obscene amounts of money must be spent on feasibility studies, land usage surveys and soil remediation with nothing to show for said studies. That’s just the way it works … or doesn’t work. Recently, the city of San Bernardino, CA, declared bankruptcy, so we must be patient and realize the wheels of government move slowly or not at all.
Speaking of slowly, back to the municipal complex we go. In 2011, when John Button was elected mayor, he inherited the project like many before him. In 2010, Kitchen and Associates were booted to the curb and a new firm, Ragan Design Group, was awarded a professional contract at the September 27 council meeting (Resolution 143-2010). So when the mayor took over, Ragan was already being paid to a) prepare bid specs for the demolition of town hall and b) redesign the library building, again.
Starting in January 2011, council began its pretzel-like journey to where we are today—which is nowhere. In March, when the consent agenda resolution was read, Monique Begg expressed her concerns regarding the “volunteer committee” that was going to work with Ragan.
(A little sidebar here about Monique Begg. She and her husband attend every single town council meeting. She is a very vocal supporter of transparency in government and has spoken at length in support of our library. To their credit, town council treats her with the respect she deserves, even though it is obvious they disagree with much of what she says.)
Spring of 2011 finds everyone going in circles. A town resident brings up rehabbing the library AGAIN. Ragan advises a rehab would cost more than $5 million, versus $6 million for a new odor-free building. There is much talk about downsizing the building to 22,000 square feet. The back and forth crescendos with a special July 14 meeting where task force committeeperson Robert Hill addresses the delightful synergy between the rec center and the library in his committee’s recommendation of combining the two buildings as Phase I of the municipal project. I was present for many of the meetings in 2011, and I remember envisioning the cacophonous chaos of a combined library-rec center. I also remember the outrage that swept through the peanut gallery at the thought of tearing down the rec center, a perfectly good building with a history that stirs the sentiments of many, many Mo’towners.
Ragan, apparently listening to the library board and library director Joe Galbraith, stated there seemed to be more synergy between the library and the town administration, with shared public meeting spaces and shared IT services.
At the September 19 meeting, Deputy Mayor Greg Gallo expressed concern with the fact that the size of the library (in the Ragan plan) had gone from 22,000 to 26,000 square feet. He asked if there was any way to shrink the project, leading to my snarky comment about the “incredibly shrinking library.” Gallo suggested an increased revenue contribution from the library might be helpful, to which Karen Olejarz, president of the Friends of the Library, replied that the Friends urged council not to downsize the library.
For those who are unaware, the Friends finance most of what we do in the Children’s Department. They pay for the programming and materials that make the library’s children’s department one of the best around. This past Thursday night, for example, we had a “Stuffed Animal Sleepover.” Twenty-five children came in their pajamas with their stuffed animal. They were treated to an hour of storytelling, a movie, a take-home craft, milk and cookies. After the kids went home, we in Children’s scurried around photographing their stuffed animals reading their favorite books, playing with Legos and eating Cheerios. We then created keepsake booklets that the children picked up on Friday. This could not have been done without the generous support of the Friends.
Scott Carew comes on as township manager in October 2011 and inherits the hot potato known as the municipal complex. At the December 9 meeting, Carew, in discussing the proposed shrinking library, notes that “the books smell,” and recommends the usage of “high-density storage” as a way to segregate some of the smelly, underused books.
Much to the delight of not only the library staff, but also the citizens who patronize the library, the closed-stacks option is taken off the table at the January 27, 2012 meeting. The smelly books triumph, as does Greyhawk Construction, who is awarded a contract for $331,000 at the February 13 council meeting. Raise your hands if you’re wondering how Greyhawk keeps making money for a project that has yet to happen.
I have been absent from most council meetings since the spring, when the mayor and his minions were preparing to appropriate Open Space funds for the fields project. That discussion was tabled when an 11th hour letter from an attorney representing a group of concerned, unnamed citizens threatened a lawsuit if the fund was used.
As for the library, it remains to be seen whether the municipal complex will break ground this fall, as Ragan has told council. We at the library continue moving forward, but no one is holding his or her breath that groundbreaking will actually happen. After all, it’s been almost 20 years! And as the summer of 2012 creeps along, we'll wait and see what happens with the Booze Cruise at the unnamed mall on Route 38.
Wake me up when something actually happens.