LAWRENCE - The city needs more bars and nightclubs like a drunk needs another drink, city officials say.
But more bars and clubs are what the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission served up in Lawrence recently, adding five liquor licenses to the city's quota and with them the potential for five more bars and clubs in a city that has trouble controlling the ones it already has.
Nightlife in Lawrence has earned a regional reputation for violence and lawlessness in recent years, prompting Mayor William Lantigua to establish a special four-member police patrol to watch over them on weekend nights.
Even with the added patrols, the city Licensing Board has its hands full. At its most recent meeting last month, the board considered complaints against five bars involving gunshots, a riot, assaults on police, underage drinking, loud music, intrusive lighting and an illegal swimming pool. The board suspended one bar's liquor license for three days and cut back the hours of another.
Those issues are not considered by the ABCC when it hands out liquor licenses for municipalities to distribute. Instead, the commission considers only a municipality's population. Last month, the ABCC increased the number of liquor licenses for nightclubs, bars, restaurants and social clubs in Lawrence from 78 to 83, based on the 6 percent population growth the city experienced since the 2000 Census, to 76,377 people.
Police Chief John Romero said the formula is faulty, especially for small, tightly packed cities like Lawrence.
"We have a lot of people in six square miles - that's problematic," Romero said. "The formula should be changed so not only population but the geographic size of the city, the density, should be factored in. Otherwise, we have the problem we have now. On every corner, you have a licensed alcohol establishment and if you have an incident in one location, it could spill over. I think we should have a lot less (liquor licenses), not more."
Bars and nightclubs in Lawrence operate with a restaurant license that allows them to serve liquor if they also serve food. For many, the menus are as slim as a hot dog, a bowl of popcorn or a slice of pizza heated up in a microwave oven.
"You're not going to get outstanding businesses like Grassfields or Ninety-Nine's," Licensing Board Chairman Rick Fielding said about the applications he expects for the new licenses. "All you're going to get is small little joints that just want a liquor license."
In June, City Councilor Marc Laplante proposed capping the number of liquor licenses the Licensing Board could issue to the current number and leaving the rest in a drawer. The cap would stay in place until the police force is restored to the 151 officers that Laplante said it had two years ago.
"Right now, what I don't want to do is put potential extra burdens on our already overburdened police department," Laplante said. "I realize that not all clubs are bad and that most if not many of the clubs do not provide problems to our police department. I just don't want to take a gamble and add more when we're struggling as a city with public safety."
William Kelly, a lawyer for the ABCC, would not comment on whether Lawrence could refuse to issue the additional liquor licenses. He said state liquor laws give municipalities "broad-based discretion" in issuing licenses, but would not say whether that meant a locality could freeze its liquor licenses if it decides it already has too many.
Kelly also noted that anyone denied a liquor license has the right to appeal to the ABCC.
In the meantime, Romero said he is running out of money to fund the special weekend patrols assigned to the bars and clubs. Mayor Lantigua appealed to the bar and club owners to contribute to the $2,000 weekly cost of the patrols, but few did.
"The club patrols have paid dividends, we've made arrests," Romero said. "But the truth of the matter is, we can't sustain it beyond October."