BERLIN — With the peak tourism season winding down, the Department of Liquor Control (DLC) has officially made the call to eliminate its liquor market in Berlin in favor of consolidating business at their recently built flagship location on Route 50.
Some see this as an opportunity for private industry to fill the gap left by the DLC’s departure, though such a move will be fought by the county, officials said. It would also require a legislative change at the state level t extend the boundaries for a private liquor retail outlet.
The DLC built its new and larger location on Route 50 east of Seahawk Road last spring. Because it is only about two miles from the long-standing Berlin market, it has been widely expected for months that the county will shutter the Berlin store and concentrate on the new store. It was announced late last week with a simple posting on the window at the Berlin store that the location will close on Sept. 2 and that all customers should visit the Route 50 site instead.
“Both stores are doing nice business, but it just doesn’t make sense to run the two of them within two miles of each other,” said Bobby Cowger, director of the DLC.
The loss of the store will not result in any lost jobs, Cowger promised.
The departure of the Berlin market shouldn’t have a significant impact on area customers, Cowger continued, as Shore Spirits is only a short drive away. Because Cowger believes that Shore Spirits should be able to adequately meet the town’s needs in terms of the availability of liquor, the DLC would not support a private business in Berlin pursuing a liquor license at this time.
“I’m hoping that the Board of License Commissioners (BLC) doesn’t issue a license back there because it would hurt both of us,” Cowger said. “If [the original store] would run we would keep it there, if it was really profitable, but it’s not really profitable. It did better than breakeven but it’s not worth two locations within two miles of each other.”
But a new private liquor license would not necessarily mean a new standalone liquor store, pointed out Berlin Mayor Gee Williams. A private business that already sells beer and wine might want to expand their operation to encompass liquor as well, which he said was reasonable and fair.
“If it’s not enough business to support a county-operated liquor store, then possibly there’s enough money there to be a side income for someone in private business,” said Williams, adding that if the standalone DLC branch was making a profit, even a slight one, it was interesting that they still wanted to leave the town.
It’s not fair to town merchants or residents, furthered Williams, that Berlin won’t have a liquor retailer within town-limits.
“I wish [the DLC] all the best at their new location. I think everybody wants to see the county succeed,” said the mayor. “But if they’re leaving Berlin, why should Berlin be the only community in Worcester County to not have a place available to buy liquor to take home in the whole county? Are we somehow different?”
Shore Spirits might not be located in Berlin, Cowger noted, but it is only about two miles from the former location and thus should still keep the town covered, especially since the nearby Shore Spirits is the largest of all county-run liquor marts. The DLC worries that if private retailers begin to crowd the liquor industry in Worcester, it will be detrimental to all parties involved as well as create a less than ideal environment in the county.
“That’s defeating what we’ve argued all along. The county, they spoke clearly in the referendum [in 1998],” said Cowger. “They don’t want liquor stores on every corner.”
The county has opposed other private businesses seeking liquor licenses in the past, including just this spring when the Green Room in West Ocean City sought to expand its beer and wine operation to include liquor. The Green Room had been located next to the DLC’s West Ocean City liquor mart for many years and when the county closed that dispensary last year to focus on Shore Spirits, Green Room owners Dave and Sara Hambury argued that unless there was liquor available their beer and wine business would suffer.
After initially planning to ask the BLC not grant the Hamburys an expanded license, the county withdrew its protest and the Green Room was given permission to sell liquor. It’s fair to note that there was a large public outcry leveled against the county in that situation.
A similar scenario could play out in Berlin in the near future, though Cowger underlined the difference between the Green Room’s request and anything that might come out of Berlin. Shore Spirits is more than four miles away from the Green Room, said Cowger, but only about two miles from the former Berlin location.
“We’re anticipating that the flagship is going to handle [the need],” he said of the Route 50 store.
But two miles is lot more to drive in the summer than in the winter, said Williams. It’s an unfair inconvenience, continued Williams.
“Why should the community be discriminated against by saying, ‘you can’t have a county liquor store but you can’t have a private one either?’ I don’t think the public would be very supportive of that concept,” he said.
A majority of the Berlin Town Council would likely support a private business applying for a liquor license, the mayor predicted. The opposition from the DLC and the county could counter-balance the local support, though it’s all hypothetical until a business owner in town takes the initiative and makes a move to secure a license, something Williams expects eventually.
“I think the marketplace tends to fill those vacuums,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock for a private liquor license not attached to a bar, hotel or restaurant right now is that the county’s governing alcoholic beverage code, Article 2B, does not allow the required Class D beer, wine and liquor license in the town of Berlin. The Class D license would allow on- and off-sale of beer, wine and liquor and require a small bar of some sort. An amendment at the state legislature to extend availability for that license into Berlin is necessary.