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News / Northwest

Washington’s last ‘dry’ town

Days appear to be numbered for 90-year-old ban

By Erik Lacitis, The Seattle Times
Published: October 30, 2015, 6:02am

FIRCREST — Ninety years of being “dry.” The last town in this state where you can’t buy liquor by the drink.

You want a mug of beer, a glass of chardonnay, buddy? You just keep going right on out of the city limits. Tacoma and all of its bars are a minute away.

But modern mores have sneaked up on this bedroom community of 6,500.

If a proposition to allow sales of liquor by the glass passes in the Nov. 3 election, that remnant of the old Blue Laws will be gone in Washington state. (“Blue” most likely a reference to the disparaging 18th-century term for rigid morality, as in a “bluenose.”)

If you can’t sell liquor by the glass, it means no bars and no taverns, and less chance of a restaurant opening up.

“We’re stuck back in time,” says Matt Jolibois, an accountant and city council member here, and a backer of the ballot measure.

Fircrest is the kind of place where another council member, Hunter George, calls his blog, “Life at 25 mph in charming Fircrest, Washington.”

He says it’s a reference to the town’s reputation as a speed trap.

George also supports the proposition.

As for voters, besides the 900-plus who signed the petition, here is another sign of how they feel:

For a while, the city couldn’t find anyone to write the “argument against” the liquor proposition in the voters’ pamphlet.

Town history

That certainly was a change from 40 years ago, when a similar measure was put before voters and rejected by more than 60 percent.

Explains Blake Surina, the town’s unofficial historian, about how folks felt back then: “This was a planned community with contoured streets. They didn’t want any kind of riffraff. They were making it into some kind of utopia. They had little vases and stands on every corner, just for decoration.”

To produce those little decorative vases, the town had its own little ceramic shop, he says.

Surina has collected historical photos of the town. Kids on a hayride. A boy getting a haircut, in an image right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. That’s how Fircrest saw itself.

The town strove to separate itself as special by naming many of its streets after top universities: Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, Vassar, Stanford.

The town was founded by Edward “Major” Bowes and other investors. Bowes was famous in the 1930s and ’40s for a national radio program called “Major Bowes Amateur Hour” that featured such future stars as singer-actor Frank Sinatra and opera soprano Beverly Sills.

Those investors originally named it Regents Park — as in the regents at a university — because they wanted to connect their planned community to education, says Surina.

Who benefits?

If the liquor initiative passes, the most direct beneficiary will be the Spring Lake Cafe, run by Scott Clement.

Viafore’s, an Italian deli a few doors away, says it has no plans to sell liquor by the glass.

At a cafe a few blocks away, T.W.O., the owner says she would contemplate selling alcohol. On a recent evening, Jill Absten says she’s had zero customers for the past hour and a half.

“There’s no dinner crowd in Fircrest at all,” she says. “It’s kind of desperate times.”

Clement’s small, 12-table place in the center of Fircrest offers everything from the Home Town Breakfast ($7.95) to an Oktoberfest menu that includes such selections as Wiener schnitzel ($15.95). The latter was an influence of a Bavarian waitress at the cafe.

“Of course, what you want with German food is German beer,” says Clement.

Clement says that if the initiative passes, he wouldn’t stay open much past his current weekdays closing hour of 7 p.m.

But he wants an even playing field with restaurants a short distance away that aren’t affected by the ban.

“When I explain to customers that they can’t get a glass of wine or a beer, most people are shocked,” says Clement.

He’s 47 and grew up in the area, attending nearby Foss High School and working in his younger days washing dishes at the private Fircrest Golf Club, where the chef taught him the basics of cooking.

The golf club also is in the city, but it has always served liquor by the drink.

That’s because it was annexed in 1995, but only after a special state law allowed alcohol to be served within Fircrest annexations. Two other areas later annexed got the same deal.

Measure’s foes

It’s said that all politics is local.

Here, it’s block by block.

It was three neighbors who eventually banded together to write the “argument against” the initiative.

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They all live on Princeton Street, right behind the Town Center mall that’s on the main drag of Regents Boulevard. An empty supermarket that closed years ago is its most prominent feature.

One of the neighbors, Ken Porter, a retired metallurgical engineer, says he was at the meeting where it was announced that nobody had signed up to write the “against” part.

He thought to himself, he says, “Well, that’s not right. Both sides should be heard.”

Scott Brannon, another of the “against” neighbors, has worries.

What happens if a brew pub goes in that empty supermarket? he asks.

“You’ve got parking issues, traffic issues, more importantly, some type of violence taking place,” he says. “This is a residential street.”

Plus, says Brannon, maybe this new brew pub would serve booze “out on the patio.”

You mean, a beer garden?

“That’s right. My front door is 25 feet from the street. The street is 30 feet wide. Then you’ve got another 15 feet to the building” across from his home, says Brannon. “I could be 75 feet away from a drink-by-the-glass situation.”

Jolibois, the accountant and council member, says that’s a good thing, that Fircrest should be more like British small towns.

“In English towns, there are always pubs, they call them neighborhood gathering areas,” says Jolibois. “It’s about actually coming out of the house at 6 o’clock at night, and there’s a gathering place.”

Brannon responds, “So, drinking by the glass fosters a closer-knit community? Really? They say things that make no sense.”

From there, that leads Brannon to discuss the garbage-can issue that has been bothering him.

For Brannon, booze and garbage all tie in.

City code

The Fircrest city code states that garbage toters (the big garbage cans with wheels) can be placed at curbside “no earlier than 5 p.m. the day before pickup” and retrieved “no later than 10 p.m. the day of pickup.”

But what actually happens with the toters, says Brannon, “They sit on the street for half of the week. They don’t enforce the codes. There’s no fines.”

So now what if the hypothetical brew pub comes in? More garbage, that’s what.

Brannon knows he’s fighting a lonely battle.

He says he talked to residents a block away from where the hypothetical brew pub could go in and found out he has few allies.

“They don’t care about what happens on this block,” Brannon says. “It’s every man for himself, I’m finding out.”