Commonwealth Journal

January 12, 2013

Mayor miffed over liquor licenses

By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

The saying goes that good things come to those who wait. Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler may take issue with that.
After a wait of about five months to find out which businesses would be selling hard liquor in Somerset, Girdler wasn’t exactly thrilled with the results. In fact, he plans on discussing the matter with the state to see what can be done to fix things.
“Let’s just say that consistent with the ordinance that was adopted after a long process with the city council, which we have successfully implemented so far, our position is that the economic impact, job creation and investment (the city was seeking) was not fully realized,” said Girdler.
“Somerset was not dealt a very good deal in terms of” the above factors, he added.
The Kentucky Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) determined that Somerset would be awarded five licenses for retail stores to sell distilled spirits and wine. While beer and malt beverages are sold at an unlimited number of stores, harder liquor — including bourbon, vodka, rum and the like, as well as wine — may only be sold by a certain number of licensed retailers, a “quota.”
The state ABC office also determined which applicants were awarded those five licenses — out of a field of more than three times that many. 
Among that number were two Kentucky-based large volume retailers — Liquor Mart, which operates stores in Richmond, Lancaster, and Danville, and Liquor World, which can be found in Richmond and as of 2011, in Manchester.
Neither was awarded a license. The state ABC office sent letters on Wednesday to two national pharmacy chain stores with locations in Somerset — Rite-Aid and Walgreens (fellow drug store CVS applied but did not receive a license) — and three local entrepreneurs.
Nathan Jones, spokesperson for Kentucky ABC, told the Commonwealth Journal that the process of choosing which stores were selected involved “the administrator” — which had been Danny Reed; he was replaced by ABC commissioner Tony Dehner only days ago — going to visit the local ABC administrator (Somerset’s is Nick Bradley). The visit would include touring the properties that would house the stores and discussing the needs of the community with local officials, according to Jones. 
However, none of the facilities appeared ready to pump the kind of money into the local economy that Liquor World CEO Wesley Morgan was prepared to put forward. Morgan’s plan would have spent millions to purchase and remodel the North Plaza Shopping Center on North U.S. 27 and potentially bring in more lucrative businesses.
This is clearly the kind of deal that city officials were counting on, as Girdler noted that a different licensing selection by the state would have meant a difference of 50 to 100 new jobs and $4 million to $6 million in financial investments, based on information he was provided. That’s a financial boost Girdler doesn’t necessarily expect to see realized under those businesses that did receive quota licenses.
“This whole issue (of alcohol sales) was about job creation and investment,” said Girdler. “If not for job creation and new investments, then what did we do it for? The state did not take that into consideration at all.”
Girdler said that state ABC personnel didn’t spend sufficient hours discussing with city officials what was in Somerset, meeting for only a brief window of time with Bradley.
“At no time did they discuss their decisions with the City of Somerset,” said Girdler. “This is supposed to be a partnership, as it says in the ordinance and in state law. ... When the state clearly ignores the economic impact and overall impact (their decisions would have on Somerset’s needs), I think we need to at least have them address it with us.”
Girdler said that the city will “possibly be pursuing other avenues” in addition to the five stores that received licenses “in order to maximize economic growth.”
He clarified that his position reflects “nothing against those who were selected, but we think there should be additional package stores approved because (the state) didn’t deal with the impact of job creation and $6 million of investment in Somerset.” He added that the five licensees “followed procedure, you can’t fault them at all,” and that the city would “work with them in any way possible” toward their success.
That said, Girdler isn’t convinced that five liquor retailers is as many as Somerset — with a population of just over 11,000 as of the 2010 census but the seat and commercial hub of a county of more than 63,000, and even for surrounding counties — can reasonably support.
“I think we can handle three or four more (stores that sell liquor),” said Girdler, “and let the private market determine who will provide the best service.”
Girdler said that the city will be “pursuing measures” to see if the state would be willing to allow for additional liquor retailers, such as the bigger stores mentioned above, “and if not, we will take whatever actions are necessary to make sure our economic growth is considered.”