Swampscott may sell its packie, but not its VFW

At Monday's Town Meeting, the town will vote whether or not to sell 16 New Ocean St., which is the C&L Package Store. (Spenser R. Hasak)

SWAMPSCOTT — The town’s VFW post is safe. For now.

The Board of Selectmen opted out of a Town Meeting vote authorizing the sale of both the town-owned VFW property and the neighboring C & L Package Store. Four of the five selectmen at Wednesday’s meeting agreed more time was needed to discuss the right options for the town’s veterans.

If approved, the adjusted warrant article would allow for the sale of just the liquor store property on New Ocean Street.

“We need to go through the process of discussing what could be done for veterans before making a decision on the property,” said selectwoman Naomi Dreeben.

Selectman Donald Hause was against the motion. He said he is not proactively advocating for selling the VFW, located on Pine Street, but he wanted the town to have flexibility in the event a developer proposed improvements to the post or a better piece of land where it could move.

Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said the goal was to find a buyer that could enhance and expand veterans’ services offered at the post.

“If we were to create the veterans’ service agency of tomorrow, how would we do that while thinking about providing more than a bar they can go to on a weekend night?” Fitzgerald asked during an interview with the Item. “Active membership down there has declined, and while I appreciate the inspired work vets continue to engage in there, we want to be more careful in thinking about what they need.”

There’s a history of confrontation between the town and VFW post, stemming from the post’s liquor license. In 2017, the VFW’s license was suspended for 30 days for over-serving patrons and serving alcohol to non-members. It was reported that a few guests drinking at the post were involved in car accidents that led to arrests for operating under the influence.

At the selectmen’s meeting, two Pine Street neighbors shared stories of what it’s like living next to the VFW post. They detailed the loss of two of their own cars due to crashes from patrons driving under the influence.

“It’s not the veterans that are the problem, it’s everyone else going in there to drink,” said the neighbor. “When my wife looks outside and sees a 20-something urinating across the street, we know it’s not a Vietnam vet, which there is a majority of in town.”

The neighbor said it hurts him and his wife when people assume they are against veterans, as many of his family members are vets themselves.

“It’s just a barroom over there,” he said. “We know people who drink there that aren’t vets and they told us they don’t even have to sign in. Our son, who is not a vet, has been invited to go and drink there.”

Malcolm Maloon, the VFW post’s commander since December, said he’s overjoyed that the selectmen decided to hold off on a vote to sell the post. He said he and veterans across Swampscott are willing to work with town officials to keep, and expand, services.

When he came aboard, he said, there was a “memo of understanding” created among the town, the police chief, and the previous town administrator which stated members could bring in one guest twice a year.

“We are trying to work with a town lawyer about defining who is a visitor or an ‘associate,’ as we like to call non-members,” said Maloon. “We’re also trying to establish some method allowing us not to let the general public in, but friends who support the club.”

With 80 active members, Maloon said they can’t support the cost of the bar with that “little amount of people.” Last November, the post did get caught by town police “being sloppy” with their sign-in procedure for non-veterans, but Maloon said the post has since become stricter with it.

“It’s not like we have a sign saying ‘we have a bar, come on inside,'” said Maloon. “We have three clubs in the post, Disabled Vets of America, American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars. We give them information about veterans affairs and how to sign up for it and we also show them how to make a claim for disability.”

Fitzgerald said town officials look forward to working with Michael Sweeney, Swampscott’s designated veterans agent, in coming up with ideas for enhanced veterans services surrounding healthcare, housing, and substance abuse programs.

Now that a sale of the VFW is no longer on the table for Monday’s Town Meeting, the vote will be to transfer the care, custody, management and control of the package store at 16 New Ocean St., which provides the town with little revenue, according to Fitzgerald.

Managers from C & L Package Store did not return a voicemail seeking comment.

“Swampscott is a small town so every property has to be evaluated for its potential to help bring in additional revenue that could help reduce the impact on residential taxpayers,” said Fitzgerald. “It is odd we own a liquor store.”

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