BERLIN — One week after Worcester officials threw their support behind a bill introduced in the House to pursue an exit strategy for the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC), Senator Jim Mathias responded to criticism his legislation did not represent the county’s wishes.
As part of the exit strategy for the beleaguered DLC, a pair of bills has been introduced in the General Assembly creating a Class A beer, wine and liquor license in Worcester that would essentially allow for new private sector package goods stores in the county. The bills would also permit existing businesses that sell beer and wine to add liquor to their line of merchandise by acquiring the new Class A license.
For decades, all liquor had to be purchased at county-run retail stores for off-site or carryout consumption, with the exception of a few grandfathered businesses that were allowed to sell liquor off-site. However, faced with drooping revenues and stiff competition from liquor wholesalers following an upheaval of the old Liquor Control Board (LCB) system, the county is now planning an exit strategy.
To that end, the county’s representatives in Annapolis, including Senator Jim Mathias and Delegates Mary Beth Carozza and Charles Otto, have introduced companion legislation in the House and Senate that would create the new Class A license in Worcester. House Bill 697 and Senate Bill 967 have been introduced with virtually the same language, with the exception of a clause in the House Bill that is markedly different than Mathias’ Senate version.
The Senate bill would allow private sector Class A license holders to open a package goods store anywhere in the county subject to approval by the Board of License Commissioners (BLC). However, while the House version is nearly identical in its basic language, it includes a provision that no new package goods store could be open within 10 miles of an existing county-owned DLC retail operation.
“The license may be issued only for an establishment that is outside a 10-mile radius of a county-owned or county-operated dispensary,” the House bill reads. “The license may be issued for an establishment that is within a 10-mile radius of a county-owned or county-operated dispensary if the County Commissioners consent.”
The intent is to limit the proliferation of new package goods stores in close proximity to existing county dispensaries, allowing the DLC to liquidate the liquor inventory it has on hand while avoiding further private sector competition. The hope is the 10-mile radius would also encourage private enterprise to purchase or lease the existing county dispensaries, further reducing the DLC’s debt before it’s dissolved.
From a practical standpoint, the 10-mile provision in the House bill would essentially eliminate all but a few small areas of the county in which the private sector could obtain the new Class A license. With two stores in Ocean City, another along Route 50 between Berlin and West Ocean City and a fourth in Pocomoke, if one were to draw 10-mile circles around the existing county dispensaries, the overlapping circles would encompass nearly all of Worcester County, save for a few small enclaves around the Snow Hill and Newark areas.
Nonetheless, the County Commissioners remain adamant about including the 10-mile provision in the companion bills. The House bill currently has it, while Mathias’ Senate bill does not. Last week, the commissioners opted to send a letter of support for the House bill introduced by Carozza and Otto, due to the 10-mile provision.
In the meantime, some commissioners were critical of Mathias’ bill, which does not include the 10-mile restriction and would allow package goods stores within blocks of the existing county dispensaries.
“It doesn’t appear to me Mathias is very sympathetic to Worcester County,” Commissioner Bud Church said during last Tuesday’s debate on the companion legislation. “I think he should be more attentive to our request.”
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw said passage of a bill without a radius restriction would be detrimental to the county’s plans for elimination of the department.
“We’ve gone through a lot of trouble to develop an exit plan,” he said.
When the idea of legislation creating the Class A license was first broached in December, Mathias supported the concept and agreed to introduce a bill in the Senate, but was steadfast in his belief private enterprise should dictate where the new package goods stores should go in Worcester and dismissed the idea of a 10-mile restriction. This week, he remained adamant in his opposition to the 10-mile rule.
“From the beginning, I’ve strongly encouraged the county to talk to the industry,” he said. “To my knowledge, that conversation hasn’t happened yet. I left the door open to work this through but it looks like the commissioners want to talk around it.”
Mathias said this week the private sector has been paying close attention to the issue and the opportunities the bills’ passage might bring.
“There are others watching this,” he said. “There are operators out there with beer and wine licenses that are considering adding liquor if the Class A license becomes available. Maybe they’re holding off on making an investment in their business until they see how this shakes out, but those opportunities would be diminished by a 10-mile radius.”
Mathias pointed to the pecking order on all things related to the sale of alcohol in Worcester, including the BLC, which is appointed by the governor to dictate where and when liquor licenses are doled out.
“There is a realm of authority here,” he said. “The Board of License Commissioners is vested by the governor to enforce the provisions of Article 2B. If the commissioners want to interfere with the BLC, I’m not going to be a participant in that. That’s an intrusion on the authority vested in the BLC by the governor and the state.”
Mathias dismissed the notion he was going against the commissioners’ wishes by leaving out the 10-mile restriction in the Senate bill.
“I have asked the commissioners to have that discussion,” he said. “I’m not an obstructionist. I’m not looking for an argument. This should be about growing jobs and creating capital investment, but this 10-mile thing is prohibitive.”
Nonetheless, Mathias said he is open to continuing the dialogue between the county, the state and the private liquor businesses to come up with a solution amicable to all involved.
“If there is something we can live with, I want to hear about it,” he said. “We have found common ground on these issues before and we can find it again.”
For Mathias, the bottom line is creating access to liquor in a safe, controlled and profitable way for all involved in Worcester County. He said the proposed 10-mile restriction on the new Class A licenses appears to fly in the face of that and would be a deterrent to creating jobs and opened new businesses.
“I want the citizens to be able to walk in and buy a bottle of spirits from a store vetted by the BLC that has invested in the business and hired people,” he said. “That’s what everybody wants from this and we don’t want to do something to impede that.”