ROCKPORT — Rockport may be poised to issue its first beer and wine license to a grocery store applicant by November, town officials say.
That's if the town gets its needed approval from the state Legislature, now expected by the end of this month, with a Statehouse hearing slated for next Monday.
But there remains no specific applicant for the license, which officials expect to be issued only for beer and wine — and only to one store, likely a new suitor for the IGA store that has been shuttered for 18 months.
Selectmen have forwarded the legislation to the Statehouse with the help of Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the Gloucester Democrat whose district includes Rockport and Essex. The bill calls for a license that Rockport leaders hope will create an incentive for a grocery store to fill the former IGA storefront.
IGA packed up in January 2011, leaving Rockporters without a place to buy some basic food essentials. Convenience stores have provided a venue for residents to buy some supplies, but otherwise, folks must trek to Gloucester, which can mean wading through dense traffic, especially in the summer months.
Selectman Paul Murphy said the trip can be treacherous for some of the town's population.
"It's a real problem not having a grocery store in town," Murphy said. "It's created a hardship for people living here in town, mainly the elderly."
At the Statehouse on Monday, the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure will hear testimony on Rockport's potential liquor licensure beginning at 3 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend, and Murphy said he hopes to be there to testify.
"This is certainly one step that the town can do," Murphy said.
The legislative committee will decide by the end of July whether to allow Rockport to grant a single beer and wine license. Then, in a November ballot question, Rockport residents will have the chance to either vote up or down on the one-time licensure in hopes of drawing in a grocery store.
Opponents fear this license could lead to more licenses for liquor and convenience stores, though the legislation specifies the license cannot be given to a convenience store.
Some residents shared similar fears in 2006, when the town opened the door to alcohol sales in restaurants. The apprehensions about restaurant sales have since been conquered, however, by what selectmen refer to as a complete dearth of public intoxication incidents at local restaurants.
Murphy said the town could hold a special referendum ballot as soon as the legislators approve the license, but said it would be more "financially responsible" for the town to wait and add the question to the November ballot. If residents vote in favor of the license, the town could present it to a potential grocery store immediately after the November vote.
Grocery store representatives have hesitated about planting a store in Rockport without the beer and alcohol sales to boost bottom lines.
Murphy said that, in talks with grocery store representatives, selectmen "have heard repeatedly" that a license might help seal the deal for a grocery chain to plop down on the empty IGA lot.
"I have spoken to a number of grocery store chains that are interested," Murphy said. "They said it's not going to be 100 percent (commitment to come to Rockport), but it would be a heck of a lot more attractive if they could sell beer and wine."
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or email@example.com.