The Pulse: O.C. kerfuffle over BYOB recalls alarm over blue-law repeal

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Bill McGinnity of Cousin's in Ocean City, N.J., talks up the BYOB proposal with locals Dee Fiordaliso and Jim Gabrysz (center).

To be raised in the Philadelphia area is to visit a particular Shore town with your parents, adopt it as your own, and hopefully return with your own children. For me, it's always been Ocean City, and my memories have kept pace with my age.

Initially, we were shoobies. Then we'd squeeze our family of four into a boardinghouse called Mrs. A's, where my parents would secure lodging for $12 per night. I mastered bike riding on the boardwalk. I've loitered outside Litterer's with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Girl-watched on the Ninth Street beach. Eaten pizza at Mac & Manco's. And gotten served 7-for-1 at the Anchorage in Somers Point.

Now, when my family goes Down the Shore, Ocean City is the choice of my own children. I hope that never changes.

Change is a loaded word these days in "America's Greatest Family Resort." If 747 O.C. resident voters sign a petition by Wednesday, there will be a ballot initiative in November to determine whether restaurant patrons will be permitted to bring a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer to dinner.

To hear some tell it, the prospect of going BYOB in O.C. would be akin to Mr. Potter's taking over Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life. But the kerfuffle is hardly the culture shock opponents portray it to be.

For one thing, the ordinance itself would bear significant restrictions. It would limit consumption to one 750-milliliter bottle per customer. Six-packs would have to be shared by at least two eaters. BYOB-ing would be permitted only during certain hours. Boardwalk restaurants seeking a license would even have to designate an off-boards entrance for patrons bringing booze.

This, as tens of thousands of summer vacationers (and locals, for that matter) already stock up on booze at places like Circle Liquor and bring it to their O.C. rental house or hotel. It's hard to believe that allowing them to take a single bottle a couple of steps farther is going to force Ocean City down The Ocean Drive.

In fact, the same argument - that a change of this magnitude would tarnish O.C.'s family-friendly brand - was used when the Sunday blue laws (ordinances that essentially forbade any entertainment-related businesses from operating on Sundays) were debated and ultimately overturned in the 1980s.

Like me, Bill McGinnity, the owner of Cousin's Restaurant, who is a leader of the BYOB movement, remembers the Ocean City of a few decades ago.

"I was working at the Flanders Hotel in the early '80s, and I remember the fight because on Sundays the boardwalk was closed. Everything on the boardwalk was completely closed," he said. "If you went into the local grocery-store supermarkets, half the stores were taped over. You couldn't buy eggs. You couldn't buy bacon. You couldn't buy feminine products. You couldn't buy a Bible because it was a hardback book, but you could buy a Playboy. You could buy a cantaloupe if it was cut in half in Saran Wrap, but if it was whole, you couldn't buy it because then you'd have to take it home and cut it yourself."

McGinnity remembers the same urgency when those laws were subject to their own public referendum: " 'We can't change this town. It's not going to make us better. Oh, my God, we can't do this!' Yet it was done."

Yes, Sunday sales were allowed, and the town still stands. All it meant was that, instead of leaving the island to spend money, visitors stayed in Ocean City. Which is probably what will happen if the BYOB initiative gets on the ballot and is approved.

Restaurateurs will be better able to keep up with competitors in surrounding towns, McGinnity insisted, citing the experiences of Ocean Grove, Collingswood, and Haddonfield, which have successfully shed their dry-town traditions.

He made it clear that neither he nor his allies harbored any desire to use BYOB as a beachhead to introduce liquor sales in O.C. "You will still have to buy your liquor elsewhere," he insisted.

All of which makes it doubtful that we'll see Snooki and The Situation carting a bottle of Chianti into Cousin's anytime soon.

 


Contact Michael Smerconish

at www.smerconish.com.

Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.