By Sentry Staff
A challenge to the liquor license sought by the new owner of Watson’s Drug Store was withdrawn following a public hearing, Dec. 8, that demonstrated overwhelming support for the well-being of the iconic Old Towne Orange diner.
Billy and Laurie Skeffington bought the historic business last summer, and have spent the intervening months remodeling it in anticipation of a January opening. While the property came with a license to sell beer and wine, Skeffington asked the city to approve the sale of harder spirits.
The Orange Planning Commission approved his request last month, but Mayor Tita Smith appealed that decision, and asked the city council to consider the merits of adding another full liquor license to the Old Towne mix. She cited 42 existing licenses within a four-block radius, referred to the dangers of drunk driving, and noted that both city staff and the police department had recommended Watson’s application be denied.
Safe and sane
During the public hearing on the subject, Skeffington assured the council that Watson’s would continue to be family-oriented, and that he wanted to make it a “fun place.” The venture, however, also needed to be competitive. He said that Watson’s business “dies off after 5 p.m.” and he was introducing a new menu to attract the dinner crowd. He also stressed that his existing restaurant, Rockwell’s/The Post in Villa Park, sells liquor with no problems. He attributed the “safe and comfortable” environment at that establishment to responsible and highly-trained managers.
Billy Skeffington’s bid for bourbon and its counterparts was supported by a dozen public speakers who pointed out that he is a responsible purveyor of alcohol (as demonstrated by The Post); that the new Watson’s will also be kid-friendly, with a kids' counter, candy sales and a fun zone; and that Skeffington needs to supplement his beer and wine sales with cocktails to remain competitive. The council was warned that without a full liquor license, Watson’s would likely be out of business in a year – due to competition and the high cost of doing business.
Scott Parker, who owned Watson’s prior to the Skeffingtons, reminded the council that when he applied for a license to sell beer and wine several years ago, he heard the same arguments. “The police department didn’t want it, there were already too many licenses,” he said. His license was granted, and none of the predicted drunken disorder materialized.
Back to the future
Parker also pointed out that Watson’s has changed over the years, and adding cocktails is just the next evolution. Indeed, Watson’s is no longer the same drug store/pharmacy that opened 116 years ago. “You used to be able to smoke there,” Parker said, reflecting just one cultural shift of the past century. “Then we had to expand the restaurant because the pharmacy could no longer carry it. You have to pay the rent; you have to pay employees. This will help Watson’s survive.”
Skeffington has invested heavily in the former drug store/soda fountain, and says he’ll “do whatever it takes to make it work.” He’s resurrected the original signage, is celebrating its history within the new décor, and aims to attract old and new customers of all ages.
All for one
It was clear throughout the proceedings that the city council and public participants – even those who opposed the full liquor license – want Watson’s to succeed. It is, after all, the oldest continually operating business in Orange and embodies the city’s history and heritage. It was also clear that Billy Skeffington is respected for his successful business in Villa Park, as well as his intent to preserve the character of the landmark drug store, even as he modifies it to meet the expectations of a new generation.
Councilman Fred Whitaker gave the liquor license a thumbs up, noting that “the last people to destroy the Old Towne ambience are the Skeffingtons. Competition is severe,” he said, “I want to be part of a winner, not a loser.”
“We have an opportunity to grow something here,” Kim Nichols added. “It’ll be a valuable asset.”
Mark Murphy summed it up. “We all think we own a piece of Watson’s,” he said. “We have memories. The Skeffington’s have a commitment to its name and identity. They have the best intentions to continue Watson’s proud traditions, albeit updated.”
Mike Alvarez, an Old Towne business owner, recused himself. Tita Smith, herself an unabashed booster of Orange’s history and tradition, opted to withdraw the appeal at the close of the hearing. “I can see what you’re each saying,” she said. Smith did ask that the planning commission approval be amended to include city manager permission for any special event held at the location.
The vote was 4-0 in favor.