Frequently Asked Questions

Given the history and emotion associated with this issue in Swarthmore, Swarthmore21 has developed these questions and answers to help educate the community about this initiative.

Where can I vote on May 16?

Registered voters in Swarthmore can vote on May 16 at their normal polling place — Swarthmore-Rutledge School (SRS), Cades School, or Borough Hall.  Polls will be open 7am until 8pm.  If you are unsure of your registration status or voting location, check both at

Who is Swarthmore21?

Swarthmore21 is a group of Swarthmore citizens who wish to remove current restrictions around the sale of beer, wine and spirits in Swarthmore with the broader goal of stimulating economic development in the business district. The group seeks to improve the vibrancy of the downtown district, to help strengthen existing businesses, and to help recruit new and diverse businesses to the Borough.  

Specifically what is Swarthmore21 trying to accomplish?  

Swarthmore21 aims to make Swarthmore a “wet” town.  To do so and per Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) regulations, we must first ensure inclusion of the following question on the ballot during the primary election to be held on May 16, 2017:

Do you favor the granting of liquor licenses for the sale of liquor in the Borough of Swarthmore?

To ensure the question is included on the ballot during the May primary, Swarthmore21 was first required to collect approximately 1,000 signatures by registered voters in Swarthmore to a petition that includes the same question.  This petition signature period occurred during the 3-week period running from February 14 to March 7, and the necessary signatures were obtained.  

Why is Swarthmore21 doing this?

Based on experiences of similar small towns, Swarthmore21 believes the overall business climate of the Borough would improve with more restaurants, which often rely on the sale of beer, wine and/or spirits for critical profit margins that enable long-term prosperity.  With more viable restaurants attracting more customers to town, Swarthmore21 believes the other businesses in the Borough will benefit from the higher foot traffic. By improving the overall business climate of Swarthmore and removing an important obstacle for restaurant entrepreneurs, Swarthmore21 hopes to reduce or perhaps eliminate the growing number of empty storefronts in town.

Through initiatives like this, Swarthmore21 aims to facilitate the development of a business district in Swarthmore similar to those in nearby towns such as Narberth, PA, and Haddonfield, NJ. Specifically, Swarthmore21 is attempting to make it possible for Swarthmore to have small local restaurants that also offer beer, wine or spirits, such as a taqueria offering margaritas, a pizzeria featuring wine, or a place where one can enjoy a beer with a burger. This initiative might also potentially equip Swarthmore’s grocery store to compete more effectively by selling beer (and possibly wine).  Swarthmore21 believes that the opportunity for businesses to sell beer, wine, and/or spirits is not only good for those businesses but also good for Swarthmoreans who wish to spend their money on meals here in Swarthmore rather than in other nearby towns.

To be clear, Swarthmore21 does not believe such a referendum is the “end all, be all” for economic development. Swarthmore21 recognizes that other fundamental challenges in town must also be addressed.  However, Swarthmore21 believes passage of the Referendum will remove an important barrier to some would-be investors or entrepreneurs and must be removed if those investors are to seriously consider opening a business in Swarthmore.

What’s the timeline for this initiative?

As stipulated by Pennsylvania law and driven off the primary election date of May 16, the petition period ran from February 14 through March 7.  Sufficient signatures were obtained during this period, so the question will be included on the election ballot May 16.  Should the referendum pass in May, businesses interested in operating a restaurant that offers beer, wine, and/or spirits could do so thereafter and begin to pursue a license, space, equipment, and hiring staff necessary to support the business.

Will the result of a referendum be permanent?

No. As noted previously, Pennsylvania state law allows referenda questions regarding the sale of beer, wine, and spirits to be on the ballot not more than once every four years.  If Swarthmore residents provide sufficient signatures on the petition and then approve this referendum in 2017, residents will be permitted to put the same question on the ballot again in 2021.

Has the Borough ever voted on this question before?

Yes, this question has been presented via referendum several times over the past century.  In 1949, by a vote of 1111 to 55, voters rejected a referendum asking if they approved the granting of liquor license for the retail sale of liquor.  This essentially made Swarthmore a “dry” town with regards to sale of liquor by the glass.  In 2001, by a vote of 797 to 711, voters passed a referendum that allowed the granting of liquor licenses to hotels on properties owned by an accredited college or university in the Borough of Swarthmore.  In 2011, a referendum with the same question under consideration in 2017 was rejected 499-428.

Why does Swarthmore21 believe it will pass this time?

Various data points indicate that Swarthmore is ready for change. Demographics have evolved in the six years since the Referendum in 2011 when the vote was extremely close and, in retrospect, may have been impacted by circumstances unrelated to the central question. Furthermore, the Inn has now been in operation for over 8 months without any negative incidents. As such, concerns about liquor sales have not been borne out.  Lastly, based on an informal poll of nearly 300 residents in 2015, 90% of those polled said they would support a referendum allowing additional businesses to sell beer, wine, and spirits.


Who can vote on this matter?

Anyone registered to vote in Swarthmore can vote on the issue during the May 16 primary.  By law, this includes college students who are registered to vote in Swarthmore (regardless of age).  Generally, if you voted in Swarthmore during the most recent general election in 2016, you are a registered voter in Swarthmore.  To confirm your voter registration, please visit

How can I register to vote in Swarthmore?

If you wish to vote on this issue in May but are not currently registered to vote in Swarthmore, you can register to vote at or go to the Delaware County election board office in Media with proper ID.   However, April 17 was the deadline to register to vote during the May 16 primary.   Therefore, at this point, you will not be able to vote not this in May if you are not currently registered to vote.  Refer to the VotesPA website for specific details. 

Can I cast an absentee ballot for the primary in May?

Yes.  Please refer to specific guidelines at for how to apply for an absentee ballet.  The deadline for applying to vote absentee is May 9, and your completed ballot be received no later than May 12.



What would be the result of a vote in favor of the ballot question?

Passage of the referendum question would permit the sale of beer, wine, and spirits by the glass in licensed restaurants, hotels, and clubs in the Borough.  It would also allow the sale of beer (and possibly wine) for carry-out by licensed restaurants and hotels and the sale of beer (and possibly wine) for carry-out by licensed grocery stores.  In effect, Swarthmore would become a “wet” town with regards to sale of beer, wine, or spirits by the glass.

If Swarthmore votes to go “wet,” is there any limit to the number of licenses in the Borough?

Based on state law, restaurant licenses are limited by quota to one (1) for every 3,000 residents. The 2010 Census showed Swarthmore to have just over 6,000 residents. Therefore, two (2) licenses would would be permitted in Swarthmore by population count.

These two licenses would be in addition to the Inn’s existing license since the Inn license is a special type not included in the state-defined quota. The use of these two (2) additional licenses in Swarthmore would require Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) approval.

Additional licenses beyond the two (2) quota-based licenses could be permitted but would require approval from both the Swarthmore Borough Council and the Pennsylvania LCB.

If Swarthmore votes to go “wet”, how would the licenses be obtained or distributed?

Per Pennsylvania law, the pool of available licenses is managed at the county level and based on overall county population. Currently, all licenses in Delaware County have been allocated to private holders.  In other words, the LCB has no additional licenses to issue, auction, or allocate otherwise. Therefore, new and/or existing Swarthmore businesses interested in obtaining a license under this referendum would need to purchase one from another license holder in Delaware County (subject to approval by the LCB).  Prices for such licenses are determined by overall supply and demand in the market.  As of December 2016, a standard restaurant license costs nearly $200,000.

How would such new rules compare to existing rules concerning the sale of liquor in the Borough?

Based on the aforementioned referendum of 2001, only the Inn at Swarthmore is permitted to sell liquor today.  In addition, a BYOB policy is permitted by all restaurants now since no license is required for restaurants to offer such an option. Passage of a referendum in 2017 would permit 2 additional restaurants to sell beer, wine, and/or spirits, as described elsewhere in these FAQs.

Would the Inn still be allowed keep its liquor license if voters reject the May referendum to make Swarthmore “wet”?

Yes. The Pennsylvania LCB has affirmed that a “dry” vote will not change the current exception that would allow the Inn at Swarthmore to serve beer, wine, and spirits in Swarthmore.  A “wet” vote would allow issuance of additional liquor licenses (as described in these FAQs) in addition to the license which is currently in use by the Inn at Swarthmore.

Would a ‘Yes’ vote permit bars in the Borough?

There are no “bar” licenses in Pennsylvania.  Any establishment that sells beer, wine, and spirits for consumption on premises must be licensed as a restaurant, meaning that it has the ability to prepare and serve food for a minimum of 30 people, as well as have seating for at least 30 people exclusive of seats at a bar (if one exists). There is no definition of “food.”  

Where would new restaurants operate in Swarthmore?

Currently, the downtown business district of Swarthmore a number of open retail spaces that have the potential to accommodate a restaurant.  At least one entrepreneur has already determined that one of the open spaces has sufficient space and infrastructure to support a restaurant and is raising capital and negotiating terms with the goal of opening the business in 2017.

Would a grocery store such as the Co-op be able to sell beer, wine or spirits if the Referendum passes?

Yes. A store like the Co-op would be eligible to sell beer and wine for on-premise consumption and carry-out but would need to seek and purchase the necessary license to do so.  The store would most likely need an “Eating Place” (aka “cafe”) license, which would allow on-premise consumption and carry-out sales of beer, as well as wine for an additional license fee per recent state reforms. To qualify for this license, the store would be required to prepare and serve food and have at least 30 seats for dine-in patrons (among other requirements). This license would count towards Swarthmore’s quota of two licenses.  Therefore, if the two quota licenses are already in use in Swarthmore, the grocery store would need to secure approval from the LCB and the Borough Council to operate with an additional license in Swarthmore. Currently, there is no license in PA that allows a store like the Co-op to sell beer and wine for carry-out only.  Note that recent developments and ongoing discussions at the state level around the sale of beer and wine by grocery stores may impact what stores like the Co-op can and cannot sell when it comes to beer and wine.

Are there any other regulations that would govern the granting of liquor licenses if the referendum is passed?

The Pennsylvania LCB, at its discretion, may refuse to grant or transfer a license to any location within three hundred feet of any church, hospital, charitable institution, school or public playground, or to any location within two hundred feet of any other licensed premises.  Further, the LCB can refuse any transfer if, in the LCB’s opinion, such transfer would be detrimental to the welfare, health, peace, and morals of the inhabitants of the neighborhood within a radius of five hundred feet of the place proposed to be licensed.

Would the Borough Council have any role in the control over the licenses?

The Borough Council would have no role in control of the initial two (2) licenses permitted by quota.  Any additional licenses beyond the two (2) permitted by the quota could be granted in the future, but only with the approval of both the Liquor Control Board and Borough Council.

What would happen if Swarthmore residents vote to remain “dry” in 2017?

If the vote on the 2017 referendum is not in favor of granting additional licenses in Swarthmore, the status quo will remain. Specifically Swarthmore would remain a dry town, with the single exception of a liquor license permitted at a hotel on the campus of an accredited college or university.  This would remain the case unless and until residents decide to pursue a future referendum.