Liquor licenses up in air in W.Va.

January 13, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Eastern Panhandle liquor stores will face competition for their state alcohol licenses unless the West Virginia Legislature changes a law requiring them to submit new bids for the permits.

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"I'm afraid if these things go back to bid there will be an end to the era of mom-and-pop stores," said Butch Pennington, who with his wife, Sherri, owns Penn Liquors near Martinsburg and Big Apple Liquors near Inwood, W.Va.

West Virginia got out of the retail liquor business in 1990 and took bids to award licenses to private companies. Those liquor store owners will have to submit bids to keep the licenses, which expire on June 30, 2000, officials said.

Pennington said he has other businesses, but is worried about what will happen to his 26 employees if he can't keep his liquor stores.


One fear of liquor store owners is that they could lose their licenses to big corporations such as Southland Corp., which owns 7-Eleven stores.

A state interim committee voted Tuesday to remind legislators they must make a decision on the liquor licenses during this legislative session, which starts today and ends March 13, said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, co-chair of the panel.

The committee studied the issue but didn't make a recommendation because members were divided over several proposals, Doyle said.

Pennington wants West Virginia legislators to accept the West Virginia Wholesale and Retail Association's proposal that would allow liquor store owners to keep their licenses and guarantee the state $22 million over the next 10 years.

Pennington said Tuesday he was pleased that the committee didn't reject the association's proposal.

In addition to the liquor store owners' proposal, there is a proposal to allow an unlimited number of licenses, one to rebid them every 10 years and one to rebid and allow the winners to hold onto the licenses forever, said Doyle.

Doyle supports rebidding the licenses because that's what the state said it would do 10 years ago. He said he would support allowing the next license holders to have them in perpetuity as long as that was stated up front.

To even the playing field, Doyle said rules could be set preventing a corporation from controlling a lot of liquor licenses. The legislature could limit the number of licenses someone could have and could require the stores to be sell only liquor.

That would prevent Southland Corp. from selling liquor at its High's stores or 7-Elevens.

Southland owns nine of the 12 liquor licenses in the Eastern Panhandle, according to the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration. Only one license, belonging to Southland, is not being used.

Officials with Southland Corp. could not be reached for comment on Monday or Tuesday.

Steve Howell, of Falling Waters, W.Va., wants the law to remain the same so he can bid on a liquor license.

Howell didn't have time to prepare a bid when he moved to the area about 10 years ago, but now he's bought land near Martinsburg in anticipation of securing a license through the bidding.

"It's just a matter of trust, if you will. That's what they told everyone in West Virginia, that they were going to expire in 10 years," Howell said.

Howell said there are others who probably bid last time and didn't win who would like another chance.

Kevin Connell, owner of the Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant, said he hopes someone wins a bid and opens a liquor store in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Connell said he and other restaurant owners could save money if there were a local wholesale liquor operator. Now he has someone drive to Martinsburg every week because Southland's stores can't sell wholesale.

Rebid or not, there are other problems that need to be fixed, such as the lack of competition, said Connell, Howell and Doyle.

"(The state has) set up a system that's noncompetitive and that's a very competitive field," Connell said.

"Most of my friends go to Maryland to buy liquor" where the selection and prices are better, Doyle said.

Doyle said he'd like more liquor licenses to be issued in the Panhandle so stores wouldn't have little monopolies.

Pennington and Howell said they want licenses that aren't used after one year to revert back to the state and be rebid.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge's 1997 proposal to shift control of state-operated wine and spirit shops to private control by holding bids for 10-year liquor licenses failed due to a lack of support in the legislature, said Donna Pinkham, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

In Maryland, liquor distribution policies are set by the individual counties. In Washington County, the number of liquor licenses is limited, except for pouring licenses.

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