Is it a safety issue? Or, a racial issue?
Both sides were presented by residents at Tuesday night's council meeting in regard to a proposed liquor license transfer by the Walsh family–whose members also own Sona Thirteen, Tashmoo and The Dark Horse–to the Early Street property currently known as Futbolandia #2, which had previously been a banquet hall that catered primarily to Hispanic customers.
Over a dozen letters of complaint signed by various residents–including Board of Education member Terri Murphy and Margarita Armington, wife of council member Stefan Armington–were submitted prior to the meeting. By law, the hearing needed then to be rescheduled at a later date, to allow the applicant the opportunity to review those letters.
Though the application was not heard Tuesday night, that did not stop a number of residents on both sides of the proposal from speaking out.
Phillip Fielding started by reading the letter aloud. "I support the increased population density and business area near the Green to lessen the tax burden on the single-family home owners like myself," the letter begins. "But, I object to the transfer of the liquor license to the place of business at 4 Early St."
The letter goes on to state that area is a "traditionally economically disadvantaged area," near a school zone and community service organizations, and students and families often walk by that area where the proposed bar/restaurant would be located.
"Allowing a bar to operate in the corridor between Morristown High School and Alexander Hamilton School and The Neighborhood House and Salvation Army is an inappropriate expansion of business into a residential area," the letter concludes.
Elliott Street resident Mary Ann Taylor, who read another letter of objection at the meeting, expressed concern over "undesirable interactions" and concerns the place would be a "base for reaching out to our students."
Those comments brought William Walsh, the liquor license holder for the property, out of his seat. He noted the location was 1,100 feet from Morristown High School, or "five-and-a-half times the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) Commission benchmarks." Walsh also noted the former Colonial Bar & Liquors on Washington Street, which his family briefly owned before it was closed last year, was closer to the high school.
"I don't know if there's more to it than meets the eye," Walsh said in regard to resident complaints. "But, the argument it's close to the high school does not fly."
"The Colonial was there and approved a long time [ago], that's not the point," Margarita Armington said. She noted an earlier honor given to Officer Anthony O'Brien for having the most DWI arrests in Morris County in 2011, and a comment by Police Chief Peter Demnitz that his force have to already keep in control a bar crowd of 1,200 to 1,500 every night at "Last Call."
"The police will be overrun. They're already overrun," she said.
Walker Avenue resident Michelle Miller said the restaurants along Speedwell Avenue are already filled with men standing outside, smoking and occasionally harassing her while she walks by with her baby. "Having another bar is going to hurt more, not less," she said.
Not every person that spoke at the meeting, however, was against the bar and restaurant approval on Early Street.
"I think it would be a really nice place," said Pablo Garita, of Mount Kemble Avenue. "When I heard about it, I wanted to come support it."
Garita also said he was offended when someone referred to the possibility of it being "seedy."
"There's a bit of a divide here between Hispanics and those that speak English," said Prospect Street resident Eduardo Jimenez. "It would be good to have this place. And, it might actually bring the community together."
When Cesar Quintero came up to speak, he made a point to call the proposed business a "restaurant" instead of a "bar."
"It doesn't matter if it's a liquor license, it's how you hold the liquor license," he said. "These Spanish people will work really hard to behave. Most of the people cite schools [as a concern.] There are schools everywhere."
Abby Mohr, who has worked with the Walsh family at several of their businesses, said, "I think people are forgetting that we have a huge Hispanic population.
"There's no place for the Hispanic population to go," she said. "I've seen them walk to the Green, go to places, get harassed and get kicked out. This is, on some level, a racial issue."
Mohr also noted the location being discussed already has allowed for liquor consumption.
"They [the Hispanic population] are already working in every restaurant we go to," she said. "We need to be more supportive."
Charlotte Quero, a Franklin Street resident that also has worked with the Walsh family, said the division between cultures in Morristown, specifically in regard to the Hispanic population: "It makes them feel like outsiders.
"We need to be able to cater to all ethnicities and nationalities," she said.
A rescheduled date for the application hearing was not yet set at the meeting.