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Economy & Business

For the First Time Since 1870, You May Soon Be Able to Order a Beer in Wilkinsburg

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Flickr user Phil Dragash
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In the last 4 ½ years, 35 commercial properties in Wilkinsburg’s central business district have been sold, 22 new businesses have moved in, and 12 formerly vacant storefronts have been filled.

That’s according to Tracey Evans, Executive Director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

Like many towns in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Wilkinsburg is slowly emerging from the combined effects of the 2008 economic recession and the steel industry’s demise in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But there’s one tool that Wilkinsburg hasn’t historically had in their economic toolbox: alcohol.

Wilkinsburg has been mostly dry since 1870, with the exception of a beer distributor and a now-shuttered state liquor store. Many restaurants also allow patrons to bring their own alcohol in.

“If you want to go out and have a drink with your neighbors, you have to go to a different municipality, and they get your tax dollars,” Evans said. “I just think there hasn’t been an organized effort because there wasn’t really an organization in place to do what we’re doing.”

All that could soon change, however, as the CDC is trying to get a voter referendum on the May primary ballot that would allow restaurants in Wilkinsburg to serve alcohol.

Evans said she has fielded some concerns from residents about nuisance bars popping up, but that that scenario is unlikely.

“An establishment would have to serve food,” Evans said. “At least 50 percent of their sales would have to be from food, and they’d have to have enough seating for thirty. So you’d really have to have more of a restaurant, not just a bar.”

Before the issue can be put to a vote, the WCDC needs to gather 1,059 signatures from Wilkinsburg residents, which is 25% of the number of residents who voted in the last election. She said the initiative has truly become a grassroots effort.

“This year we’re really seeing a lot of people involved in wanting to volunteer to get signatures,” Evans said. “There are residents out there who know a lot about the issue, so they’re online having discussions and answering questions themselves.”

But even if the issue makes it onto the ballot and receives voter approval, diners are not guaranteed to see a wine list at their favorite Wilkinsburg restaurant.

With fewer than 16,000 residents, Wilkinsburg only qualifies for five liquor licenses. State law allows a county to have one license for every 3,000 residents. The same rule applies to each municipality, but a business owner can jump through additional bureaucratic hoops to bring an extra liquor license to a city. Long story short, establishments in other municipalities have already gulped up Wilkinsburg’s share of the licenses.

“There are no new liquor licenses available in Allegheny County,” Evans said. “Someone would have to purchase an existing liquor license.”

Evans said those highly sought-after licenses can cost $85,000 or more, so the barrier to entry is fairly high. But she said allowing restaurants in Wilkinsburg to serve alcohol is a key part of the city’s economic revitalization plan, which was approved by the borough council in 2010.

“We are looking at all the pieces that we need to bring more business to Wilkinsburg to have people out at night, restaurants that you can sit down and have a nice meal in, and this one of the pieces,” Evans said.