New Liquor Department Making A Difference In Worcester

OCEAN CITY — Sales are up and relations are at an all-time high, but the recently christened Worcester County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) admits that there are still a few areas it will be working on heading into the winter months and next summer.

Even with the improvements, however, some licensees are still eagerly awaiting the chance to leave the DLC, a monopoly that all Worcester County licenses must be purchase their spirits through, and join the free market in 2016.

“Things have really been going pretty well,” said DLC Director Bobby Cowger.

According to Cowger, the county-run DLC, which replaced the quasi-governmental Liquor Control Board (LCB) on July 1, has already seen a 10-percent increase in sales compared to what the LCB was bringing in at the same time last summer.

“It’s been a very good summer,” said Cowger.

Both County Commissioners and the private license holders that form the DLC seem to echo the same comments.

“It’s night and day better,” said Robert Jester, owner of Trader Lee’s Village, a retail store in West Ocean City that sells beer, wine and liquor, among other goods, comparing the current agency to the LCB. “They’ve cleaned up the shenanigans.”

Doug “Buxy” Buxbaum, owner of Buxy’s Salty Dog and president of the Worcester County License Beverage Association, agreed, saying, “We’re going in the right direction.”

County Commissioner Louise Gulyas, a long-timc LCB critic, is also pleased with where the DLC is heading, saying that she was satisfied with how things are currently being run. As far as complaints go, she acknowledged that she has heard some, but none that were “earthshattering.”

“It’s a work in progress,” said Gulyas. “It’s a new route in Worcester County to be doing this.”

One of the major complaints that license holders had operating under the LCB had to do with inventory. According to Cowger, popular brands and items weren’t always being stocked sufficiently, especially right before peak times like summer weekends and holidays. This sometimes led to shortages.

“There were a lot of products they [LCB] were running out of,” said Cowger. “That was one of the biggest complaints with licensees.”

Since the transition in July, said Cowger, there haven’t been any issues with inventory, even during Independence Day weekend, arguably the apex of the season and only three days after the DLC became official.

Neither Buxbaum nor Jester had any complaints over a lack of product, an issue that Buxbaum confirmed troubled the former LCB.

“They’re well stocked,” he said.

Cowger did admit that the transition hasn’t exactly been a fairytale. Higher prices than what would be available if businesses bought directly from wholesalers have been a major point of contention between the LCB and their license holders since the beginning. Now that the DLC is directly under county supervision, Cowger asserted that efforts are being made to bring their prices closer in line with prices available on the free market.

“We’ve done quite a bit to get pricing down,” he said.

Buxbaum acknowledged that efforts are being made, but pointed out that liquor license holders in Worcester are often paying much more than their equivalents in other counties because the DLC is the middleman between the wholesales and the county licensees.

“We feel there can be a little give,” he said. “There has to be some bend.”
According to Buxbaum, licensees might still pay a 25-28-percent markup when purchasing product.

“We’re handing over more money,” he said.

It’s because of those pricing issues that both Buxbaum and Jester plan on taking advantage of the DLC’s “sunset provision” when it becomes available in five years.

“That’s what I’ve always held out for,” said Jester.

The provision will allow any county liquor license holders who so choose to leave the DLC and begin purchasing products on the free market themselves.

“It will put us on the same playing field as everyone else in the state,” said Buxbaum.

Only four counties in Maryland, including Worcester, have a DLC or its equivalent. Though the new agency hasn’t been able to impress licensees enough yet to convince them to stick with it, both Buxbaum and Jester stressed that the new system is significantly less abrasive than what it was only a few months ago.

“We’ve made leaps and bounds,” said Buxbaum.

Both attributed much of the success to having Cowger at the helm.

“We have somebody to go to,” said Jester.

Jester was also optimistic about ironing out any minor problems the DLC still faces.

“For what we have, it’s running very smoothly. It’s something I think he [Cowger] is going to work on,” Jester said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Whether Cowger can streamline the DLC to a point where licensees decide to forgo the sunset provision in 2016, however, is yet to be seen, and most of the larger licensees are reportedly still planning to explore the free market when the option is available.