Wheaton’s Ale Fest: a conservative image and helping the downtown

Wheaton has been a politically and religiously conservative community from its early day. Therefore, Ale Fest, a festival that might be considered normal for other suburban communities, still draws attention:

And while an ale fest might not be news in other communities, it raises eyebrows in Wheaton, which has a large evangelical Christian population and prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages from 1887 until 1985.

Wheaton Ale Fest, which will take place on Front Street from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, will feature more than 100 styles of beers from craft brewers around the nation. The event, which is being hosted by the Wheaton Park District in conjunction with the Downtown Wheaton Association and the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce to bring more visitors to downtown Wheaton’s shops and restaurants, also will allow visitors to vote for their favorite Illinois craft beer…

Looking back, Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk called the gradual loosening of alcohol restrictions – and the community’s acceptance of them – “typical of Wheaton,” which was not a community that wanted “to go into this too fast.”

“If you look at our history, this is quite a stunning change from what we did 30 years ago, but there are residents who have moved here since 1985 for whom the whole idea of the city’s past prohibition would be news,” Gresk said. “As a city, we’ve had a very gradual and measured response, and the city has eased itself and its population into this mindset. We police it very closely and watch to make sure there are no underage sales.”

Gresk noted that while “some longtime residents might raise an eyebrow” at the notion of an ale fest, he believes the event is a great way to showcase Wheaton’s many businesses.

Two points come to mind:

1. Wheaton’s image is long-standing and has staying power. Even though liquor sales have been allowed for over 25 years, some people still think of Wheaton as dry. While not all suburbs have such a consistent character over time, Wheaton does. This could be good and bad: some people like consistency (what you see is what you will get) while others might want more to do and more to happen (compare downtown Wheaton to downtown Naperville).

2. The push to allow liquor sales in the mid 1980s and the reason for having Ale Fest today sound about the same: alcohol sales can help bring people into town and boost tax revenue. In the mid 1980s, the argument was made that restaurants would not be interested in locating in downtown Wheaton if they could sell liquor. Today, Mayor Gresk also says the festival is “basically good for our downtown.” The festival may not exactly fit with Wheaton’s image but many suburbs are looking for ways to improve their business climate, boost tax revenues, and bring more people into their downtown.

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