Bottled up potential: Some residents in the dry town of Wilkinsburg are getting thirsty
Marlee Gallagher of Wilkinsburg walks along Wallace Avenue going door to door to try and collect signatures on a petition aiming to allow liquor licenses to be distributed in Wilkinsburg.
Ermando DiPasquale, owner of Salvatore's Pizza House on Penn Avenue, is in support of a petition that would allow liquor licenses to be granted in Wilkinsburg.
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Bundled up and loaded down with paperwork, Marlee Gallagher set out Tuesday evening to find people interested in turning dry Wilkinsburg wet.
"I'm not really sure what to expect," said Ms. Gallagher, 24, a Wilkinsburg resident and a grant writer for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, as she began her first day of collecting the signatures needed to put a referendum on liquor licenses onto the May primary ballot.
In Wilkinsburg, this is uncharted territory. Although the liquor license issue has been raised regularly in recent years, this is the first attempt at a petition campaign.
The community, which has a population of just under 16,000 according to the 2010 census, has been dry since 1870. After the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933 put an end to Prohibition in the United States, dozens of saloons opened in Wilkinsburg.
But Pennsylvania law made liquor sales a local option, and it's not clear today whether the saloons' presence was a factor in turning the community dry, or whether it was the community's reputation as a city of churches. But in 1935, residents voted 7,657 to 4,610 to outlaw the sale of liquor licenses, and it's been dry ever since.
That doesn't mean Wilkinsburg is devoid of alcohol. People can drink in their own homes, restaurants can be BYOB, and located on Penn Avenue is the borough's sole beer distributor, Wilkinsburg Beverage.
For decades, the borough also had a state store that sold wine and liquor, but it burned down in 2007 and wasn't replaced, partly because it posted low sales and partly because community leaders expressed concerns about crime near the store, a spokeswoman for the state Liquor Control Board said.
Fewer than 10 municipalities in Allegheny County are dry, but there are hundreds of dry communities across the state. Being dry, for Wilkinsburg, means bars and restaurants cannot serve wine, beer or other alcoholic beverages.
"It's such a weird thing," Ms. Gallagher said. "No one who doesn't live here, like my friends, can believe this is a dry community."
It won't be dry for much longer, if a campaign by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. is successful. The group, building on a business district revitalization plan that was adopted by borough council in 2010, has been lobbying for a change, believing that restaurant liquor sales will attract new businesses and strengthen a financially struggling community blighted by crime and vacant homes.
"This is one piece of the efforts that can help us attract people," said Tracey Evans, executive director of Wilkinsburg Community Development.
A majority of voters must approve the measure in the May primary, and if it passes, Wilkinsburg can acquire a maximum of five licenses, in accordance with its population. However, since Allegheny County has reached its license quota, an interested licensee in Wilkinsburg must buy an existing license from someone in the county.
Before any of that can happen, though, the issue has to get on the ballot. That means collecting 2,010 signatures from among the approximately 9,000 registered Wilkinsburg voters within three weeks.
And that's why Ms. Gallagher, a volunteer for the CDC, was walking up North Avenue, then across Mulberry Street and along Wallace Avenue on Tuesday as a cold wind blew, with petitions and a list of voters in her arms.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Ms. Gallagher has lived in other parts of the area but moved to Wilkinsburg after being introduced to the borough by friends, including her boyfriend, with whom she is in the process of buying a house on North Avenue.
She would like to be able to grab a drink at a place nearby, rather than leaving and spending her money in another town. One day, she and her boyfriend think they might want to start their own coffee shop or restaurant, for which a liquor license could come in handy.
"It's something we've thought about," she said. "Just because there's so much potential here."
At community meetings, however, she's been frustrated by the positions of other residents, who worry that introducing liquor could result in nuisance bars and worsen the community's crime problem.
That's what worries Jessica Booker, 44, who has lived in Wilkinsburg for nearly a decade. On Tuesday night, she was picking up food at Salvatore's Pizza House on Penn Avenue. Its owner, Ermanno DiPasquale, supports the petition.
"I do believe it's good for the community," he said. "I don't think anybody's really interested in coming in this area because ... there's not many things happening."
Ms. Booker, however, said, "I don't think you should mix food, alcohol and children."
She likes that her community is dry, that when she walks into a restaurant, she knows people won't be drinking. Plus, she said, she's seen alcohol cause problems in neighboring communities. Wilkinsburg has its own problems with crime, she said.
"Why do we want to add more fuel to the fire?"
The dominant opinion in the town wasn't clear while Ms. Gallagher walked around for nearly an hour.
There was no answer at most of the houses. One man who did answer told her he wasn't a registered voter, a requirement to sign the petition. Another woman didn't answer the door, but called down from a window her response to Ms. Gallagher's query: "No." Another woman declined to sign, then quickly closed her door.
After more than 30 minutes, Ms. Gallagher adjusted her ambitions for the day. Her new goal, she said, was "to get one signature." But as the sky turned dark, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, Ms. Gallagher, without that one signature, decided to end her first round. She would sign a petition herself, she said, and so would her boyfriend and maybe a few of their neighbors.
She remained confident that by the March 12 deadline, she and other volunteers could collect enough names.
If they don't, Wilkinsburg, officially dry for nearly eight decades, will remain that way for at least two more years.
First Published February 22, 2013 4:09 pm