NEW FOR WEDNESDAY: County Approves New ‘Flagship’ Liquor Store On Route 50; West OC To Close Immediately; Berlin Store Likely Later

SNOW HILL — The county-run Department of Liquor Control (DLC) asked and received approval for three major changes to their operation including the closing of one or more stores in favor of a new “flagship” location, an increased discount on liquor sales to licensees and a new logo and name for all stores. < ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office">

All of the changes are aimed at making the DLC a better steward to the licensees it supplies and a more convenient option for private customers, according to County Chief Finance Officer Harold Higgins.

The new DLC superstore will be located in a 9,840-square-foot facility in West Ocean City off Route 50 eastbound one quarter mile east of Seahawk Road. About half of the facility, named the “Worcester Plaza,” will be occupied by the new 4,800-square-foot DLC liquor store.

“Our proposal would include closing the current Liquor Mart Retail and Wholesale outlet in West Ocean City and perhaps the Berlin Retail outlet store,” wrote DLC Director Bobby Cowger in a letter to the Worcester County Commissioners, “and creating this new flagship store. It will offer both retail and wholesale operations in a new high profile area that would better serve all Northern Worcester County residents year round, as well as travelers using the busy Route 50 corridor during the busy summer months.”

The new store will be larger than both the Berlin and West Ocean City DLC stores combined. It will also be more expensive. The “flagship” store will cost $17.50 per square foot annually, or $84,000 paid at $7,000 per month. Currently, the 3,200-square-foot facility in West Ocean City and 1,500-square-foot location in Berlin have a combined annual lease cost of $66,418, according to the county.

Despite the increased price tag, Cowger advised the commission that the new location should make up more than the difference in increased sales.

“While the annual lease cost of the proposed Northern Worcester County Liquor Mart would be $84,000 per year, we believe that increased sales volume at this new US Route 50 high-profile location would more than compensate for any additional store expenses,” Cowger wrote to the commissioners.

While the proposal to close the West Ocean City liquor facility in favor of the new store is all but certain, closing the Berlin location has not been guaranteed as of yet. However, Higgins said that closing both liquor marts is the direction the DLC is heading at this time.

“It will basically replace our West Ocean City location as well as our Berlin location,” he told the commission.

The lease for the new facility is set to begin April 5, or “the date the building improvements are substantially complete.” Once operational, the new store will join all other DLC-run retail outlets in the county in a name change. The current moniker of “Liquor Mart” will be abandoned in favor of the softer “Shore Spirits” name and logo. Featuring three martini glasses and a patriotic motif, the new logo is designed to set the DLC apart from its previous, quasi-governmental Liquor Control Board (LCB) form, according to Higgins.

“But what we wanted to do was make it a little more colorful, make it a little more retail friendly,” he said. “We want to make ourselves different from the old management board.”

The logo will be incorporated into both the new flagship store and the Snow Hill retail location. As current stores are relocated or renovated, the “Shore Spirits” logo will be added to the buildings.

The final change the DLC requested this week is an increased discount to wholesale purchasers of liquor in the county. As it stands, DLC licensees are able to purchase liquor wholesale at 85 percent of the retail price, for a 15 percent discount. The commissioners agreed to expand that discount to 16 percent, which will cost the county about $107,000 in estimated revenue every year but will return that money into the pockets of private businesses.

The trade-off is worth it, said Higgins, since the county is still seeing a “reasonable” profit on its wholesale operations while offering better prices to licensees. While the DLC has spent more than a year trying to mend fences with dissatisfied license holders who felt mistreated under the old LCB, Higgins admitted that there’s still room to improve that relationship.

“We believe there’s still a little bit more we can give them,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Bunting asked if the more appealing discount is being put in place to entice licensees to not take advantage of the DLC’s “Sunset Provision” set to trigger in 2016. The provision would allow private bars and liquor stores to break away from the DLC and purchase alcohol directly from manufacturers or distributors.

Once the tether is cut, Higgins acknowledged that the department will likely lose some of the “big boys” or the largest bulk purchasers of liquor in the county. However, the DLC has maintained that the service and convenience it provides will be enough to keep the majority of its current licensees, especially the smaller mom and pop operations, in the fold.