WILLINGBORO, N.J. - For more than 200 years, from the Methodist settlers who feared the devil to the postwar suburban pioneers who feared falling property values to the just plain fearful parents of the recent past, the people in this town have repeatedly agreed: no liquor.
No bars. No package stores. No glasses of beer served at the two pizza parlors in town, the two Chinese takeout joints and the single Caribbean cafe.
And Willingboro is hardly alone. Most of New Jersey's 43 dry towns are here in the southern part of the state, which is dotted with old summer resorts founded by teetotaling Protestants who purposefully turned their backs on the wet temptations of New York and Philadelphia.
But now that old dry rigor is being shaken by the hard truths of economics and taxes, which may yet make wets out of many of the region's longtime prohibitionists.
In November, Willingboro residents will vote on a referendum to allow alcohol to be sold by the glass in restaurants along Route 130, the once-vibrant corridor between Philadelphia and New Brunswick that is now so decrepit along some stretches that muffler shops are the high-end businesses.
Inspired by developers
The move is inspired by the developers of one of the town's two defunct shopping centers, who maintain that the price of success is the presence of brand-name restaurants. And the national restaurant chains will not come if they cannot get liquor licenses, said Stephen R. Jaffe, a partner in Renewal Realty, the redevelopers of the former Willingboro Plaza, now hopefully renamed Town Center.
"We want to attract the family-style, theme-type restaurants that will bring the kind of business that happens in a vibrant, 24-7 community," Jaffe said.
In other words, an Applebee's, the town's leaders say, or a TGI Friday's or - dare they aim so high? - an Outback Steakhouse.
The idea that a restaurant could spark economic development is hardly confined to Willingboro, a town of 35,000. Other towns in South Jersey are looking to throw off their dry pasts and are seeking a new, alcohol-connected future.
"We have been receiving a number of phone calls from dry towns on what the procedure is to go wet," said David N. Bregenzer, counsel to the director of the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. "Whether they go through with it or not is something that we'll just have to wait and see."
A developer in Linwood, a town of 7,000 just west of Atlantic City, is collecting signatures to get an alcohol sales question on the November ballot. It is the only way to anchor a large office project with a fancy restaurant, town leaders say.
"There's a number of restaurant operators who are willing to come down from Philadelphia, but they won't because we're a dry town," said Ken Mosca, the city administrator.
"I think most people support the idea, but there are others who have been here for many years who do not. But we could really use the kind of ratable [taxable property] the developer is trying to bring here," he said, referring to sources of tax revenue.
Gibbsboro is also considering whether to go wet, and Delanco Township has the wet-or-dry question on the November ballot.
"Towns these days are looking for those ratables," said the Delanco town clerk, Janice M. Lohr.
Some dry towns, however, show no inclination to bend.
"Absolutely not," said Henry S. Knight, the mayor of Ocean City, which even prohibits restaurant patrons from bringing their own wine, beer and liquor.
"We were founded in 1879 by four Methodist ministers, and we have the fact that we're dry in all our deeds," Knight said. "We market ourselves as America's greatest family resort, and we strive mightily to keep it that way."
Willingboro's voters codified the Colonial era's ban on alcohol in 1960, when the town voted on what turned out to be a short-lived name change to Levittown, in honor of William J. Levitt, the builder who peppered the farmland west of Route 130 with hundreds of cookie-cutter houses.
"South Jersey's below the Mason-Dixon line, and it's not the South, but it's not like any place else, either," said Herbert J. Gans, the Columbia University sociologist whose pioneering book on modern suburbia, The Levittowners, described his experience living here for several years in the 1950s.
"They were mostly young people who had put all their money into their homes and they were nervous as hell about anything that could reduce their property values," Gans said.
The town again rejected alcohol sales, by a mere 100 votes, in a 1997 referendum, when many church leaders, including the Rev. Joe Bass of Alpha Baptist Church, preached against approval. But this time Bass said he would relent and vote in favor of allowing alcohol to be served, because he feared that a divided town would hamper an attack on what he sees as the real problem.
Defining the issue
"The issue is not adult drinking; the issue in America today is about teen-age drinking," Bass said.
"I think we should be putting our energy into stopping that problem, and if we are divided on this issue, we will fail," he said.
But the Rev. J. Evan Dodds Sr., pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Good Shepherd, said that he would preach against the change, despite some pleas that he not try to influence his flock.
"They are talking about alcohol as the salvation of this town," Dodds said. "Well, I object to the notion that alcohol can be the salvation of anything."
The proposed law would allow the sale of alcohol by the glass only in restaurants where most space is devoted to food service.
"In other words, no bars," said Lavonne Bebler Johnson, the town's deputy mayor, who hopes that at least two restaurants will move into the new Town Center, where Burlington County College is occupying a new $2.5 million classroom and laboratory annex, and where the township has already built a new $7.6 million library.
These attractions, and alcohol sales, might make the Town Center what the old Willingboro Plaza once was, said Robert B. Stang, Jaffe's partner in Renewal Realty.
"When Bill Levitt built the Willingboro Plaza, it was the center of the town," Stang said. "Kennedy spoke there and Nixon spoke there, everyone went on their first date at the theater there."
Putting the new library at the Town Center helped create a new focus for the town, Stang said, but it needs more shops to draw crowds, who might be looking for a place to have a nice meal.
"Having a restaurant with a liquor license with a catering establishment is precisely what we need to round it off," he said.