Watsonville is Open for Business, and Beer.

If you aren’t a stranger to Santa Cruz County politics then you would realize how interesting and unique a sight it was to behold last Tuesday during the evening session of the Watsonville City Council. The chambers were crowded, with a broad spectrum of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds in attendance, but unlike any other meeting you would come to expect in this County, almost everyone in the audience, and every present Councilmember, agreed on, and then supported the ordinance being discussed. The topic of discussion: whether or not Watsonville should allow more alcohol selling retailers within downtown, and the City at large.

Now, if you happen to be a similar non-stranger to Watsonville politics this would also seem out of the ordinary. After all, Watsonville took the exact opposite approach about 20 years prior when the City systematically cracked down on many of the previously un(under)-regulated alcohol serving venues throughout the City. This was mainly done in response to concerns about public safety and crime. However, in the years since, crime has organically dwindled in Watsonville, as it has in most areas of the country. This is especially true since the Great Recession of 2009, where unlike other parts of the County that recovered within the few years that followed, Watsonville’s unemployment rate remained above 20 percent all the way through 2012.

Now the City is experiencing an economic resurgence and a peak of previously unrivaled investment. Crime is also tremendously low compared to the hey day of liquor service in the City, though the inherently skeptical group of folks who justifiably sought to curtail alcohol sales in the past are still here, and still skeptical.

All of this is why having such a crowded, and yet somehow cordial group of folks at Council was so strange, and why the ordinance should be considered a model for future policy-making. Turns out representatives of the local business community had been meeting regularly with Santa Cruz County Community Prevention Partners (CPP), a group of folks might otherwise have some serious concerns about additional alcohol vendors in Watsonville. However, the businesses involved decided to be proactive and engage them before coming up with any policy proposals. This way they could address CPP’s concerns in advance and write a policy that could meet both groups needs. Watsonville City Staff should also be applauded here, as they helped to facilitate these meetings, and then ultimately had to broker the terms of the ordinance.

The results:

  • Up to 10 percent of the establishments in the Downtown can have one of the valid license types, which vary from simple beer and wine, to full liquor license, to private club, to ancillary uses like an art gallery being able to serve wine.
    • This would allow up to 16 new alcohol serving establishments in the downtown.
  • Up to 2o percent of a single shopping center may serve alcohol under one of the license types
  • All applicants must pass a thorough screening, including analysis by City staff as to the viability of their business model, and their reasons for wanting to serve alcohol.
  • A community oversight committee will be formed to review applications and also discuss if/how the ordinance needs to be amended.

Beyond the the balanced and flexible policies that were adopted, the true winners here are the Watsonville community–who proved that through proactive and genuine communication–that local democracy is still alive and well.