Optimism is the watchword in Somerset’s efforts to increase opportunities for liquor store licenses, based on the mayor’s comments Monday.
Mayor Eddie Girdler told the Commonwealth Journal that he “think(s) there will be some very positive results between us and the ABC,” referring to the Kentucky Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
That’s after the City of Somerset filed a complaint with Pulaski Circuit Court last week claiming that the state agency acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in choosing which of 17 applicants would receive the five “quota” Retail Liquor Package licenses that would allow them to sell distilled spirits and wine in a store setting, and “in conflict with the City’s rights” under the Kentucky Constitution.
Girdler also sent the Kentucky ABC a letter requesting that they simply work out a deal to grant Somerset more than five possible package liquor licenses, so that bigger retailers can move into town. The city’s goal is to solve their dilemma that way, but is prepared to take legal action if needed.
Girdler wouldn’t divulge exactly why he’s feeling positive about the direction things are taking, but added, “So far, I think the state ABC and the city will be able to hopefully accommodate each other in the future.”
High-volume retailer Liquor World, with stores in Richmond and Manchester, was prepared to make a $5 million investment in the North Plaza shopping center, even trying to bring in a national chain restaurant. Girdler was eager to bring that type of economic influx Somerset’s way, and was disappointed when the state passed over Liquor World to grant licenses to two national drug store chains — Rite-Aid and Walgreens — and three local entrepreneurs seeking to open Apple’s Wine and Spirits, and First Stop Party Supply and Package Store, and Wildcat Beer, Wine, and Spirits.
Only the last of those has been given the green light to open by the city, however, with the other four smaller-scale liquor retailers having their city licenses held up until the city can convince the ABC to allow more than five licenses. The ABC selects how many quota licenses a “wet” area should get and then picks who gets them — and it’s Girdler’s belief that Somerset can handle more than five based on market size.
In fact, the complaint filed by the city even states that according to Kentucky Administrative Regulations, one liquor package license is available for every 2,300 residents in counties containing second- to fourth-class cities — which would mean Pulaski County could conceivably qualify for a quota of 28 licenses. Girdler, however, is seeking only about three or four more.
One reason for optimism could lie with the Kentucky ABC’s new leadership. Frank Higdon, a Lebanon, Ky., attorney, was named the new Kentucky ABC commissioner last month by Public Protection Cabinet Secretary Robert D. Vance. Higdon is replacing Tony Dehner, who was one of the subjects of the complaint.
Dehner had also been overseeing the ABC when Wesley Morgan, CEO of Liquor World, filed a lawsuit against the agency last year, hoping to point out problems with the way quota licenses were approved for Corbin, Ky. — another newly “wet” community where Liquor World was denied.
“The new commissioner doesn’t take office until around March 15,” said Girdler. “We do anticipate that on or near that date, there will be some action taken. IT could be a lot sooner than that, but we’re not certain.
“I think (Higdon) will be very fair and reasonable,” added Girdler. “As I understand it, he wants to put a very positive image on the ABC, working for the benefit of the Commonwealth. I think that’s very good news for Somerset.”
With current applicants approved by the state waiting to move forward opening their stores and stocking their shelves with alcohol, time is of the essence, and Girdler is hoping for a faster resolution than the court system would provide should it come to that and the city can’t work out a deal with the state ABC directly. Girdler expects that path could take up to 60 days based on court dockets and the types of motions filed, and the city’s “best recourse” is to expedite an administration ruling — something that will also save the city money in legal fees.
“We think that with the new commissioner coming in, the process will be quick,” said the mayor, “in order to not only help the applicants but giving direction to the state in terms of how to deal with these issues.”